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US transmission buildout faces challenges, could impede clean energy future: panelists

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Heinrich suggests need for backstop siting authority

PJM chief says must break out of one-size-fits-all regulatory process

Washington — Industry executives and a Senate Democrat at a forum Wednesday eyed easing transmission permitting obstacles and increasing federal research and development dollars for electric storage technology among top priorities for modernizing the grid to achieve a clean energy future.

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A massive buildout of the country's transmission system has been pitched as key to transforming the aging grid to accommodate the growth in renewable generation and push to decarbonize the power sector.

But siting long-haul transmission lines has proven to be a daunting task given the number of state and locality sign-offs required to bring a project to fruition. While the state where the power is coming from and the state where it will ultimately be delivered tend to be onboard with projects, it is harder to convince the states the line must cross of the benefits of moving that power, Senator Martin Heinrich, Democrat-New Mexico, said during a panel discussion hosted by Politico.

It just takes one state, political subdivision, or landowner to derail "necessary transmission," he said, adding that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's lack of backstop siting authority over interstate transmission projects was something Congress should look into when it embarks on an infrastructure package.

But streamlining the permitting process has been a contentious topic for lawmakers as those that desire to see infrastructure approved swiftly have butted heads with those that seek greater environmental protections.

NO ONE IN CHARGE

Heinrich said he found it problematic that "certainty is not built in if you do the right things," and that no one seems to be "in charge" when it comes to transmission siting. "You want one person, one agency who is going to shepherd a project from beginning to end and do the analysis to determine whether it's a good project or whether we should be looking at alternatives," he said, criticizing the Trump administration's whole-of-government approach to policy as removing accountability.

With prospects for legislative fixes murky, American Public Power Association President and CEO Sue Kelly advocated for review and possible reform of transmission planning processes.

"I think it's important to show if you are going to build these large transmission lines that you have considered all the alternatives and what you are doing is the most cost-effective and the most bang for the buck," Kelly said.

Energy efficiency and technologies on the grid edge were among alternatives she pointed to with the potential to "get you as much bang for the buck without having to permit through eight states."

She asserted that more needed to be done to ensure the most economic portfolio of resources were being built, in light of "insufficient scrutiny ... of lower voltage assets plus the benefits that you could get by building them."

STORAGE R&D

Turning to federal priorities for energy innovation, Heinrich called for at least a doubling of investments in energy R&D, with an emphasis on advancing long-duration electric storage.

Noting the strides currently being made in lithium ion batteries, Heinrich said it was time to turn American ingenuity to solving "how we shift generation through the seasons to really get to the high levels of clean [energy] penetration that we're going to need."

Andrew Ott, president and CEO of PJM Interconnection, said organizations like his were currently being stifled by a one-size-fits-all regulatory process that was preventing new technologies like storage from collecting "their piece of the revenue stream."

"We have to break beyond that," Ott said. "Unfortunately, in this industry, rapid change is not something we're great at."

Separately, a group of House Democrats Wednesday introduced an infrastructure package that allots more than $33 billion for clean energy, including $4 billion to upgrade the grid and $4 billion to expand the use of renewable energy.

-- Jasmin Melvin, jasmin.melvin@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Rocco Canonica, newsdesk@spglobal.com