‘Latest battleground’: How politics seized the electric grid

By Miranda Willson | 12/19/2023 06:49 AM EST

Trump-era American politics has turned the staid Federal Energy Regulatory Commission into an unlikely venue for conservative activism.

FERC building and Transmission line

Francis Chung/POLITICO (FERC building); Varistor60/Wikipedia (transmission line)

Calls to speed the development of the electric grid might sound familiar to George W. Bush.

The former Republican president who signed the Energy Policy Act of 2005 wanted to remove “outdated obstacles” standing in the way of building a better power grid. “To keep local disputes from causing national problems,” Bush boasted at his bill signing, “the bill gives federal officials the authority to select sites for new power lines.”

Bush’s attempt at boosting federal authority saw a grisly end in a federal courtroom. But the sweeping energy law aimed to meet head-on America’s persistent struggle to build electricity infrastructure for a growing economy.


It was packed with hard-fought policy wins for Republicans and Democrats. And Bush was flanked by members of both parties as he put ink to paper that day.

Fast-forward to today, and the political contrast couldn’t be sharper.

The rapid phase-out of coal and the shift to renewables and battery storage are forcing another reckoning with the bulk power grid and the challenge of building transmission lines. This time around, President Joe Biden’s goal of zeroing out carbon pollution, and now serious electric reliability concerns tied to the threats of extreme weather, are every bit the driver as the growing economy. As a result, that push to green the grid is stirring opposition and legal threats from a coalition of Republican attorneys general and political operatives, many with ties to Donald Trump’s campaign for president.

The atmosphere has injected raw political tactics into an ongoing rulemaking at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission meant to put longer-term grid planning into practice — with the potential for a more deliberate transmission build-out to deliver wind and solar power to major metropolitan areas.

Republican state attorneys general — led by Texas’ Ken Paxton and Utah’s Sean Reyes — are gearing up to challenge in court the FERC transmission planning proposal once it’s finalized. They’ve argued that the plan would force red states to pay for transmission lines that would solely benefit climate-conscious blue states.

Others rallying against the FERC rule and other transmission initiatives include outgoing FERC Commissioner James Danly and former Commissioner Bernard McNamee — two Trump appointees who have become increasingly influential on energy policy in conservative circles, political analysts said.

“We don’t have a transmission crisis in this country,” McNamee said last spring at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s policy summit. “This is all driven by renewable developers who are frustrated.”

Congressional Democrats and clean energy advocates have been concerned by FERC’s failure to finalize the rule more than a year and a half after it was proposed.

“It’s becoming the latest battleground for renewables opponents,” said Pat Wood, who chaired FERC at the start of the George W. Bush administration. “I’m hopeful that people can see beyond it.”

Investments in high-voltage transmission lines aren’t keeping pace with growing demand for electricity and the shift to renewable energy, according to research from the Department of Energy and elsewhere. And it’s almost universally recognized that permitting hurdles can ground projects to a halt. It can take 10 years or more for a big, interstate line to get fully permitted by state and federal agencies.

The slow build-out could have implications for grid reliability; consumers’ power bills; and the pace at which solar, wind and other new energy projects come online. Most components of the transmission grid were built in the ‘50s and ‘60s, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, and existing lines are struggling to accommodate a wave of new energy projects.

The pending FERC proposal being shepherded by FERC Chair Willie Phillips would require grid planners to consider a broader set of potential benefits from transmission, including grid reliability, protection against extreme weather events and greater access to energy resources. It would also increase the involvement of states in the process for divvying up transmission costs.

“My goal is to ensure that we are efficiently planning and constructing much needed new transmission facilities,” Phillips, a Democrat, said in a letter emphasizing his support for the rule last month.

Republican lawmakers say Democratic policies would “overbuild” transmission for wind and solar projects and “pass the excessive costs onto consumers,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said this month. Cramer has emerged as the GOP’s unofficial grid guru in ongoing negotiations over energy permitting and is keeping tabs on FERC’s proposed rule.

Supporters of a build-out that spreads costs more broadly say consumers benefit from a more resilient electric grid built for the future — it’s not just about going green. FERC is looking for a way to address disputes over costs that have thwarted previous projects, they say.

“This notion that somehow you’re going to build transmission to pay for other states’ clean energy policies — even though you hear it a lot, you see it in the media — it’s kind of overblown,” said Richard Glick, Democratic FERC chair during the first two years of the Biden administration.

The influencers

Conservative think tanks that have housed climate skeptics or are opposed to government policy that would replace fossil fuels have built a network of politically connected insiders to target FERC policymaking.

McNamee, the former FERC commissioner, wrote the energy policy chapter of the 900-page Heritage Foundation playbook for a future Republican administration. It’s known as Project 2025.

The playbook describes how a Republican president — Trump is ahead in most GOP presidential primary polls — could dismantle transmission funding and planning initiatives. Under the plan, Department of Energy offices that focus on enabling grid expansions to help bring on more renewables would close.

McNamee, a former DOE official, was seen as one of the most overtly political appointees to FERC in decades when he joined the commission in late 2018. He left in September 2020.

In an interview this year, McNamee said FERC should focus on reliability and fair electric rates — and not “pick and choose winners and losers” when it comes to coal, gas, nuclear, wind, solar or batteries.

Legal strategies are also taking shape around the commission’s grid planning and cost allocation rulemaking. Multiple people, including former commissioners, speculate that 17 Republican state attorneys general who sent a letter to FERC opposing the pending transmission proposal took their cues directly from Danly, another Trump appointee.

Danly has criticized the commission’s proposals as a thinly veiled attempt to promote an “aspirational” renewable energy future.

Danly held a meeting at his own request with the Utah attorney general’s office in May 2022, less than a month after FERC’s proposal was issued, according to records. He declined to comment on the nature of the meeting in Utah. The attorney general’s office also did not respond to an inquiry from E&E News.

“Even if you can’t prove that he’s talked to them, [these states] are obviously following his lead,” said Ari Peskoe, director of the Electricity Law Initiative at Harvard University.

The final public FERC meeting of the year Tuesday is expected to be Danly’s final meeting before leaving the post. His term expired in June, and he’ll need to leave the commission once Congress adjourns for the year.

“He’s someone a lot of conservatives are looking to,” said Neil Chatterjee, who led the agency as Republican chair during much of the Trump administration.

In Congress, Republicans say that they aren’t opposed outright to more transmission or voluntary efforts to get more lines built. Cramer, the North Dakota senator, said he’s against the concept of a “nationalized grid,” but he pointed to successful efforts among Midwest states to advance and divvy up billions of dollars in costs for new large transmission lines.

“It takes time to get folks on board, but at the end of the day, bottom-up versus top-down gets better results and less litigation,” Cramer told E&E News.

Republican energy permitting proposals would help build transmission lines, he added.

“Some have oversimplified a permitting package as being pipelines for Republicans and transmission for Democrats,” Cramer said. “Republicans want the heat to work and the lights to come on just as much as any Democrat; in fact, probably more so considering we want reliable generation sources that work 24/7, not just when the wind blows and the sun shines.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat who’s been pressing FERC to act, said he believes a bipartisan agreement on transmission permitting reforms can be achieved. “Even beyond the obstacle our creaky grid poses to a clean energy future, problems with the aging grid are clear and present today,” Whitehouse said in a statement to E&E News.

Bridging the divide

Some transmission advocates are trying to make transmission less partisan. One example is Devin Hartman, director of energy and environmental policy at R Street, a conservative-leaning, pro-free-markets think tank.

A bill this year to encourage the development of interregional transmission floundered amid Republican opposition. Hartman is hoping to refocus the conversation on Capitol Hill and at FERC on how the grid’s issues make it harder to build new energy projects — and that’s a drag on the broader U.S. economy and a threat to electricity reliability.

“The marketing of transmission reform has mostly come from a pro-renewables or green messenger community. That’s just not speaking the language of Republicans,” Hartman said.

Economics and grid reliability were the focus of transmission discussions in the early 2000s. But the pro-fossil fuel, anti-fossil fuel rhetoric of climate politics has bled into the transmission debate today, including the FERC transmission planning proposal that’s dragged on for almost two years.

In his first term as president, the second Bush saw transmission development as key to a reliable power system following the historic Northeast blackout in 2003. The blackout affected at least 50 million people and spurred the establishment of mandatory reliability standards for electric utilities. At the time, coal, natural gas and nuclear energy easily dominated the power sector.

Energy costs had also become a political issue. Just before fracking revolutionized natural gas production, gas prices hit record highs in 2005. More transmission also had the potential to unlock wind and solar power, bringing enough new energy onto the grid to offset rising costs around natural gas generation.

Bush continued to support an efficient transmission permitting process after he left office, praising the build-out of new lines in Texas to accommodate wind projects during an American Wind Energy Association conference in 2010.

“When Republicans were last engaged on the issue, like with George W. Bush, you had a lot of traction made,” said Hartman of R Street. “The renewables branding of transmission reform does taint it in some Republicans’ minds.”

Some natural-gas-fired power generation is being added today along with proposed small nuclear and geothermal facilities. But the vast majority of new energy projects seeking access to the grid are solar, wind and batteries.

That push to vastly increase renewables across the grid is now stoking concern among companies that still own coal and newer natural gas plants, noted Richard Pierce, a law professor George Washington University.

“Renewables were not viewed as a threat by the owners of the fossil fuel plants or fossil fuel companies before because they were bit players,” Pierce said.

The power industry is expecting electricity demand to possibly triple by 2050 as more Americans plug electric cars and heat pumps into the grid and power-sucking data centers pop up, Deloitte reported this month.

Meanwhile, a steady increase in grid upgrade costs is borne by developers of those new energy projects, said Joseph Kelliher, who chaired FERC in the final years of the George W. Bush administration.

“That to me is a clear sign of failure of transmission planning,” Kelliher said.

The interconnection process that ties new electricity generators into the grid has been bogged down. It can take project developers up to five years to get through that process in some regions. FERC this year enacted new policies meant to ease the backlog, but energy project developers say it didn’t go far enough.

Last year’s Inflation Reduction Act and other laws looking to bring more high-tech manufacturing back to the United States have led to more factories being built. The Electricity Consumers Resource Council, which represents industrial customers, has said more transmission development is critical to keeping energy costs in check.

“We continue to try to paint transmission in a bipartisan way,” said Karen Onaran, president and CEO of the group, “because it’s going to be absolutely crucial if we’re bringing more manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.”

‘You’ll see major challenges’

Getting a FERC transmission rule out the door may only be the beginning of a long fight. Beyond the Republican state attorneys general, there may be legal challenges from the Southeast that assert the dominant electric utilities such as Southern Co. and Duke Energy should continue to control long-term regional transmission planning.

“If the Republican-governed states see themselves as being pushed to pay for the renewable policies of blue-governed states, you’ll see major challenges coming down on that,” said John Decker, a partner at the law firm Vinson & Elkins, a firm that represents electric utilities and other energy companies.

Nonetheless, some observers see reasons to be optimistic about the state of transmission development.

In August, the Biden administration proposed a rule to streamline the federal permitting process for major power lines. The administration has also been doling out billions to help get transmission projects across the finish line. And administration officials are stepping in to reduce obstacles facing megaprojects like the 552-mile SunZia Wind and Transmission, which will link wind turbines in New Mexico to the power grid.

“We’re on the cusp of something good here,” said Chris Jones, a partner at the law firm Troutman Pepper. “Transmission should be, arguably, the most nonpartisan or bipartisan issue out there that there is. The grid itself is fuel-agnostic and does not care where the electrons come from.”

Some of the recent efforts could build confidence among transmission developers, said Alexandra Klass, a law professor at the University of Michigan.

“You have these larger multistate projects,” she said, “make those a priority, get people together and get those built. Get steel in the ground.”

Reporter Jason Plautz contributed.

Correction: This story was updated to correct the name of the partner at the law firm Vinson & Elkins who was quoted.