State and federal policymakers are looking to existing highway rights of way to ease permitting obstacles for electric transmission projects.
Electric transmission advocates are encouraging state utility regulators to focus on leveraging existing rights of way to cut down on permitting time for new grid projects.
"We know that the highway right of way is the solution that has been hiding in plain sight," Allie Kelly, executive director of public-private philanthropic partnership The Ray, said Feb. 14 during an annual policy meeting hosted by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.
Right-of-way projects sited along existing highway and railway corridors can enable developers and permitting agencies to avoid exercising eminent domain, which can lead to costly and protracted legal disputes with private landowners.
Kelly participated in a panel discussion focused on harnessing rights of way as the U.S. government and a growing number of states seek to achieve 100% carbon-free power systems. That could require up to a threefold increase in existing transmission capacity by 2050, according to a recent study by researchers at Princeton University.
The Ray has already been working with the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration for about six years to build out a test bed along a 16-mile stretch of highway in Georgia, Kelly said.
The test bed is part of a broader NextGen Highways initiative that aims to strategically colocate fiber-based broadband and electric transmission lines along existing highway rights of way.
Kelly cited estimates from NGI Consulting, a Seattle-based firm formed to advance the NextGen Highways concept, that found siting such projects along existing rights of way can cut permitting time from 10 years to five.
'The perfect opportunity'
Success stories already exist. In December 2018, the 180-mile, 345-kV Badger-Coulee transmission line was placed into service, the result of a partnership between the Wisconsin Public Service Commission and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
"There's a lot of really amazing work that Wisconsin has done that we can learn from in moving forward quickly over the next few years," Kelly said.
More recently, the U.S. government has started to ramp up efforts to ensure that similar projects cross the finish line.
The Federal Highway Administration in April 2021 released guidance that for the first time gave alternative uses of rights of way the same priority as traditional transportation uses, Kelly noted.
That same month, the U.S. Department of Energy also announced $5 billion in available loan guarantees for innovative transmission projects with a special priority for projects using high-voltage, direct-current technology along existing rights of way.
Kelly argued that state utility commissions should immediately begin work on related memorandums of understanding with state transportation departments if they have not done so already.
"For the opportunity and use case for interregional transmission, next-generation highways and our highway and interstate rights of way are the perfect opportunity for us to leverage the public's land," Kelly said.
In addition to its work in Georgia, The Ray is also working with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to understand what changes need to be made to the state's utility regulations to accommodate right-of-way projects.
The organization expects to release a feasibility study as part of that effort in the coming weeks, Kelly said.