New York — Ambitious climate goals and a renewed emphasis on environmental justice envisioned by the Biden administration will require a greater focus on overcoming obstacles to getting much needed transmission expansions and upgrades built, the head of the WIRES trade group said.
What have largely been state-driven efforts to combat climate change and reduce power sector dependency on fossil fuels will get a boost from the federal government with President Joe Biden in charge, and "transmission is the critical link that delivers clean energy generation from often remote locations to where it is needed," Larry Gasteiger, executive director of WIRES, an industry group focused on advancing investment in high-voltage transmission, said in a recent interview.
Biden's first day in office put to rest any doubts that his plan to put climate change front and center on his agenda was mere campaign fodder. He immediately took steps to reverse direction on regulation and accelerate a transformation of the energy sector in line with his ambitious target to hit 100% clean electricity by 2035. Those steps are likely to be bolstered Jan. 27 when the White House is expected to issue an executive order that launches a "series of regulatory actions to combat climate change domestically and elevates climate change as a national security priority on combatting climate change," according to a memo news outlets obtained.
"With all of this focus and activity on climate change and on cleaner energy resources, that's only going to mean more of a focus on transmission as well because the goals are very ambitious and it's very clear that you cannot accomplish those goals without a significant increase in the investment and development of transmission," Gasteiger said.
And notably, while environmental justice issues have tended to focus on natural gas infrastructure projects, Gasteiger said the Biden administration's emphasis on this will extend to the electric realm.
Historically, "older, dirtier" electric supplies have been located in poorer or largely minority communities, he said. As the push to replace that generation with cleaner resources continues, "transmission is absolutely going to have to be part of the discussion."
"To the extent that you're going to be starting to now rely on generation resources that are more remote, you're going to need some way to get the power from where it's being generated to where it's needed, and that's going to mean transmission. So transmission is a key component towards meeting those environmental justice goals," Gasteiger said.
As far as how siting of needed new transmission will play into environmental justice concerns, he said "there is going to be a greater emphasis on using existing rights-of-way or corridors that currently exist to serve as transportation as a way of lessening the impacts of transmission on the communities" that have disproportionately been impacted.
But the siting and permitting of long-haul transmission projects can be a decade-long ordeal as significant steps at the local, state, and federal levels provide "ample opportunities to either slow down or impact the timeline on which it takes to get transmission built," Gasteiger said.
He highlighted the need for better coordination between federal, state and local authorities with transmission permitting and siting duties as an area in particular need of attention.
Kieran Kemmerer, a power market analyst with S&P Global Platts Analytics, pointed out in a Jan. 26 email that several large transmission projects have been proposed and in development for much of the last decade with the aim of delivering renewable energy to a premium market.
"Regional disparities aside, projects have seen more success by serving both a reliability and/or clean energy need as well as providing direct benefits to the communities through which the infrastructure runs, which aids in overcoming what is often a contentious and drawn-out permitting process," Kemmerer said.
He added that project developers have recently started pitching buried lines to overcome some permitting obstacles, but Platts Analytics believes those "projects will have more difficulty receiving financing given the incremental cost in burying the infrastructure."
Gasteiger said he expects the new administration to take a closer look at existing authorities to facilitate and expedite transmission buildout, including some Energy Policy Act of 2005 provisions that ran into legal challenges and subsequently fell by the wayside.
The 2005 law gave the energy secretary power to designate "national interest electric transmission corridors" in areas suffering from transmission congestion and constraint problems, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission authority to approve and expedite construction of high-voltage transmission lines within those corridors. But federal appeals court decisions in 2009 and 2011 threw out FERC's backstop siting authority and DOE's designation of two corridors.
"I think you're probably likely to see a little bit of a circling back to those and see if we can breathe new life into them, notwithstanding some of the court decisions that came," Gasteiger said.
He added that FERC could also aid by examining its policies and industry practices with regards to transmission planning, cost allocation, and interconnection queue processes in an effort to get transmission built more quickly.