White House unveils plan to accelerate power grid expansion

By Jason Plautz, Peter Behr | 04/25/2024 06:24 AM EDT

DOE created a one-stop shop for permitting, helping transmission developers avoid the regulatory patchwork that has tripped up projects.

Towers for electric transmission lines.

Towers for electric transmission lines. Tim Boyle/Getty Images

The Biden administration launched initiatives Thursday designed to boost the nation’s electric grid infrastructure, including a final rule to streamline permitting and approval of large transmission projects.

The Department of Energy created a one-stop shop for federal permitting, helping transmission developers avoid the lengthy patchwork of regulatory approvals that has slowed major projects. The program makes the department the lead agency in permitting and finalizes a yearslong, multiadministration effort to coordinate the work of at least nine agencies with a hand in permitting power lines.

The program sets deadlines meant to complete the authorization process inside of two years.


The move also comes as Congress remains deadlocked over how far to go to streamline permitting and enable the delivery of vast amounts of wind and solar power across regions — a core requirement for meeting President Joe Biden’s goal of a nearly carbon pollution-free electricity system by 2035.

Biden administration officials have also said that long-haul power lines and upgraded older ones are needed to strengthen a grid that faces increasingly violent storms and extreme temperatures.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said the announcements are part of a “holistic, multi-faceted approach to grid improvements and to grid expansion.”

“Together we’re getting more power to more people in more places with the urgency that Americans deserve,” Granholm said on a Wednesday call with reporters.

DOE announced a goal to upgrade 100,000 miles of transmission lines in the next five years, including by deploying technologies like high-performance conductors and dynamic line ratings to make existing lines carry more power. The goal will be supported by funding through the Grid Resilience and Innovation Partnerships (GRIP) program.

DOE also announced up to $331 million in funding from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law for a new transmission line that will carry more than 2,000 megawatts of clean energy from Idaho to Nevada. The 285-mile Southwest Intertie Project-North line from Great Basin Transmission, a subsidiary of LS Power, is part of a larger set of projects designed to carry wind, geothermal and solar energy north and south between Idaho and the Las Vegas area.

Granholm will appear in Salt Lake City on Thursday to announce the Southwest Intertie Project funding.

Lines across the West

Large multistate projects can be held up for years as permitting delays, lawsuits and other challenges emerge as energy companies string massive electricity lines across public and private land.

Transmission projects that the Biden administration now considers crucial have been in the works in many cases for more than a decade. The SunZia Wind and Transmission line, which will send clean electricity from New Mexico to Arizona and into Southern California, for example, took 16 years to complete the federal permitting process. The 125-mile Ten West Link transmission line between Arizona and Southern California was proposed in 2016 but did not break ground until 2022.

DOE announced Thursday that the Ten West Link is operational and will help unlock more than 3,200 megawatts of solar capacity in the West.

Rob Gramlich, head of the consultancy Grid Strategies, said DOE’s lead agency authority through the Coordinated Interagency Transmission Authorization and Permits (CITAP) program — which was granted by Congress almost two decades ago and implemented only now — could be “very helpful for lines, particularly in the West where multiple agency approvals are required.”

A report from Gramlich’s organization released in September found that even though the Biden administration is improving the pace of transmission construction, grid expansion must quicken even more to meet the nation’s decarbonization goals and support the build-out of clean energy.

DOE’s announcement includes a new push to speed the deployment of advanced power cables to replace older high-voltage lines as a faster means of boosting power flows over congested existing transmission corridors.

The actions add a rule that provides new transmission projects with the simplest and fastest compliance requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act for power line replacement projects using advance cabling in existing transmission rights-of-way.

The standard environmental compliance rules have long provided power line opponents with powerful legal leverage to challenge infrastructure projects impacting federally owned or managed lands.

Advanced power lines are lighter and stronger. Manufacturers then can wrap the line with more aluminum sheathing that increases the current the lines can handle. While these lines have higher upfront costs, their greater capacity provides a rapid payback, DOE analysis shows.

Still, the department noted in a review of advanced grid technology this month that only $6 billion of nearly $90 billion spent on electricity transmission and distribution infrastructure in 2023 went for advanced grid solutions.