Transmission hamstrings push for 100% clean electricity

By Peter Behr | 01/16/2020 07:23 AM EST

A coalition of grid companies has fired off a new argument on why green energy advocates should embrace strategic, long-haul, high-voltage transmission lines and why the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission needs to make that happen.

A new report emphasizes a need for more long-distance transmission lines delivering renewable power.

A new report emphasizes a need for more long-distance transmission lines delivering renewable power. Northern Pass Transmission LLC

Clarification appended.

A coalition of grid companies has fired off a new argument on why green energy advocates should embrace strategic, long-haul, high-voltage transmission lines and why federal regulators need to make that happen.

Zero-carbon goals coming from a cluster of U.S. states, cities, utilities and companies can’t be met without more long-distance transmission lines delivering more renewable power, according to the analysis by the WIRES group, advocates for power line expansion. "Transmission must be part of the solution" to the climate challenge, said Larry Gasteiger, executive director of WIRES.


But state and local policies "continue to stymie transmission development" with siting and permitting processes that handicap projects, the report by the ScottMadden Inc. consulting firm said. States want locally sourced renewable energy projects as job creators even when cheaper renewable power could be imported, it added.

The power line option has long been on the fringe of the clean energy debate, but WIRES has returned to the fray with a nearly 300-page analysis of region-by-region opportunities to move renewable energy from where it’s abundant — like Great Plains wind power — to major metropolitan areas, where it’s not.

The report also spells out why that’s not happening more, spotlighting what it calls the failure of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Order 1000 to catalyze construction of more interregional power lines to move wind and solar power across multiple states.

FERC issued the order in 2011 to increase competition for transmission projects. It called for more interregional planning but didn’t require it, and that encouragement wasn’t enough to overcome state opposition to such big projects, the report said.

Now it is up to FERC to create financial incentives for transmission to support renewable energy and strengthen grid networks against natural disasters and cyberattacks, the WIRES report said. The independent energy regulator could help settle quarrels over who pays and who benefits from power line projects that cross state and regional lines.

"Until a forcing function requires these regions to develop a methodology that facilitates largely public policy projects, the hope of interregional transmission meeting national needs for transmission (to serve any purpose, let alone clean energy) will remain elusive," the WIRES report said.

Transmission developers can’t look for unified backing from green energy partisans. "Environmental interests stack up on both sides of the transmission development debate," the report acknowledged.

As a case in point, the report promotes the value of more transmission to the cluster of U.S. states and cities under Democrats’ leadership that have pledged to pursue the carbon reduction goals of the Paris climate accord by increasing renewable energy use. The declarations followed President Trump’s decision in 2017 to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement.

The U.S. Climate Alliance, which has rallied this state and city support, argues that a major transmission line expansion between now and 2030 would benefit planned new natural gas-powered units, threatening to lock-in a surge of greenhouse gas emissions for the life of the projects. That outcome is "incompatible with achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement," the alliance says.

The Climate Alliance helped develop a "Non-Wires Solutions" playbook issued by the Rocky Mountain Institute, advocating for distributed energy and energy efficiency investments. However, a spokesperson for the alliance says that description is out of date. Its position is that transmission expansion should help bring more electricity generated from renewable sources to its member states and be paired with non-wires solutions to minimize greenhouse emissions.

The WIRES report seeks to tip the debate its way with analysis of how the potential growth of renewable energy is outstripping the ability of utilities to gain access to it.

Using data from the Energy Department’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, ScottMadden analysts mapped U.S. regions where surplus wind and solar power are likely to exceed state-set renewable energy targets.

"The report, on a regional basis, shows the changes in resource mix are happening whether anybody likes it or not," said Donna Fulton, director of federal regulatory policy for Eversource Energy, a New England-based grid operator and transmission developer, and a WIRES member.

The short-term outlook for renewable power growth remains solid, according to an U.S. Energy Information Administration forecast issued this week (see related story). EIA projects renewable energy generation will supply 22% of U.S. electric power needs in 2021, up from 17% last year.

But the WIRES report cites growing bottlenecks that threaten that growth.

If you can’t build it

"You can’t build it unless it’s deliverable; that gets you back to transmission," said Greg Litra, director of research at ScottMadden.

Congested power lines connecting prime Great Plains wind power farms to Midwest cities are choking new renewable energy development, according to the Clean Grid Alliance, a coalition of clean energy developers and environmental groups. "I think there’s extreme urgency," Allen Gleckner, senior director of energy markets and regulatory affairs at St. Paul, Minn.-based Fresh Energy, told E&E News recently (Energywire, Dec. 12, 2019).

WIRES’s Gasteiger said FERC needs to take another look at the benefits of strategic transmission investment, beginning with a broad reconsideration of its Order 569, issued on Nov. 21, 2019, which set rates of return for the Midcontinent Independent System Operator Inc., the grid manager in a corridor from Canada’s Manitoba province to the Gulf of Mexico.

The reduction in MISO rates was a "shocking victory for ratepayers," said R. Scott Everngam of Blue Horseshoe Energy LLC, following the decision (Energywire, Nov. 22, 2019). At the same time, the order sparked "a growing crescendo of concern," according to commentary last week by former FERC Commissioner Tony Clark in Utility Dive. "Almost any future grid scenario that includes renewables will require more transmission," Clark said.

The FERC policy undermines the value of power line projects, Gasteiger said. "From WIRES’s perspective, it sends the wrong signal to investors, transmission developers and owners on getting transmission built. I’m hopeful the commission will revisit that issue. I think there was a tremendous negative response."

Gasteiger and Eversource Energy’s Fulton said an ongoing FERC inquiry on transmission incentives, docket PL19-3, could be a vehicle for commissioners to find new financial incentives for transmission projects that meet climate or security priorities.

Although FERC began the inquiry last March, the issue is active inside FERC, Fulton said. "They are looking to get more input," she said. "[FERC] staff is doing outreach on incentives right now."

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect the U.S. Climate Alliance’s most recent position.