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FERC announces transmission task force, encourages voluntary action among states

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Transmission lines from the Western Area Power Administration's Mead substation extend west toward California.
Source: Chris Lyles/Western Area Power Administration

With the need to expand the U.S. electric grid growing increasingly urgent, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on June 17 announced a "first of its kind" joint task force with state regulators to address obstacles to transmission buildout.

FERC also separately approved a draft policy statement encouraging states, public utilities and transmission providers to enter into voluntary agreements that facilitate transmission planning.

Various studies have estimated that the U.S. will need to double or even triple its transmission capacity to meet the Biden administration's goal of decarbonizing the nation's economy by midcentury. But the buildout of interstate transmission lines needed to accommodate a growing number of renewable energy resources has lagged in recent years amid local landowner opposition and disagreements over how to allocate costs according to a project's benefits.

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Industry experts generally agree that FERC's Order 1000, a decade-old transmission planning rule, has failed to produce enough interstate transmission. The rule, which became fully effective in July 2013, requires FERC-jurisdictional regional grid operators and independent system operators to coordinate on interregional planning. However, former FERC members have said those requirements need to be strengthened. No interregional transmission lines selected through an Order 1000-mandated transmission plan have been completed to date.

New joint task force

Noting that federal and state regulators share authority over interstate transmission, FERC's June 17 order (AD21-15) established a joint task force comprising 10 members of state utility commissions and all of FERC's seated members.

"I do think that the dialogue that we're about to engage in through this joint task force with the states and FERC is hopefully going to lead to some proposed solutions," FERC Chairman Richard Glick told reporters following the agency's June 17 open monthly meeting.

The new joint task force is expected to address a broad range of thorny problems known to impede major transmission projects. Those include siting and cost allocation considerations, outdated interconnection policies for new resources, and transparency and oversight measures to ensure transmission projects are cost-effective.

"It's a great first step and very wise," Rob Gramlich, executive director of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, said in an email. "I hear from many state commissioners that they want FERC to act, and of course they would like to have input as well."

The joint force will be established under Section 209(b) of the Federal Power Act, a seldom-used provision of the statute that enables FERC to "confer" with state commissions on matters of mutual concern through joint hearings.

"This particular piece is interesting because they're using an authority that has rarely been invoked by the commission before," WIRES Group Executive Director Larry Gasteiger said in an interview.

The June 17 order asks the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners to submit nominations for the joint task force within 30 days. Members of the task force will be announced at a later date with an initial meeting planned for this fall, according to a FERC news release.

Voluntary agreements

In a nod to states that may wish to act on transmission at a faster pace, FERC's related draft policy statement (PL21-2) clarifies that voluntary agreements between two or more states are not precluded by the Federal Power Act or existing commission-issued rules such as Order 1000. The same goes for agreements between one or more states and one or more public utility transmission providers or two or more public utility transmission providers, according to the statement.

As an example, the statement cited the PJM Interconnection's "state agreement approach" to transmission planning. Under that approach, PJM in April opened a competitive solicitation process for transmission infrastructure serving wind resources off the coast of New Jersey, a state targeting 7,500 MW of installed offshore wind capacity by 2035.

Commissioner Mark Christie, who wrote a concurrence to the policy statement, noted during the June 17 meeting that voluntary agreements do not need to be limited to transmission planning. Such agreements can also apply to the practice of power "wheeling" from one transmission system to another, as one example, Christie said.

Commissioner Neil Chatterjee, a Republican whose term expires at the end of this month, did not participate in either transmission-related agenda item.

Glick is also expected to unveil a broader road map for further action on transmission issues such as grid operators' interconnection policies before the end of the summer.

"I certainly think we need to move sooner rather than later," Glick told reporters. "Having said that, as I've said many times, if you just have internal discussions among FERC and some of our stakeholders and ignore the states, we're not going to get to where we need to go."