The $ 1 trillion infrastructure bill is a small step toward the U.S. network we need


Any effective plan to address climate change depends on the underlying technology: long wires strung across tall towers.

The United States needs to add hundreds of thousands of miles of transmission lines in the coming decades to connect fragmented regional power systems into an interconnected network capable of supporting a huge influx of renewable energy.

A national network of short lines and transmission lines, high-voltage wires would deliver wind, solar and hydropower where needed when available nationwide. It could help provide reliable backup energy when heat waves or winter storms cause regional energy shortages, and keep up with growing demands as homes and businesses increasingly rely on electricity to power their vehicles, heating systems and more.

It’s a big vision with a few serious flaws. For starters, it will be very expensive. Led by Princeton study revealed that the United States will need an additional $ 350 billion to develop the transmission capacity needed in the next nine years alone. This is according to a scenario in which wind and solar energy provide half of the country’s electricity by 2030, putting the nation on track to reduce emissions by the middle of the century.

Even if the government and businesses free up the necessary funds, a more complex challenge lies ahead: states, counties, cities, and towns across the country would have to quickly unsubscribe to a multitude of new transmission lines. And the U.S. has become terrible at allowing such multinational projects.

A through effort deliver cheap, clean hydropower from Canada,, wind from the great plains, and a mixture of renewable energy sources from the southwest they have been embroiled in legal battles or repulsed for years, often because one region has given up cutting wires through its country. Even those large network projects that are still being built can easily take a decade to go through the approval process.

Some help will finally arrive. About $ 1 trillion infrastructure package progress in the Senate, which has bipartisan support, provides billions of dollars for transmission lines. It also includes some provisions that could prove even more important than money, by strengthening and clarifying federal power over project approvals.

However, the package would represent only a small advance on investment and allow for the changes that will be needed.


The United States does not have a single network. He has three ages, switched off systems, mostly built in the middle of the last century, with limited electricity exchange possibilities by countries and larger regions. This is a problem because power plants can be hundreds of kilometers away from big cities, where the demand for electricity is greatest.

Insulated networks mean that electricity from fluctuating sources, such as solar and wind, can only be delivered so far, losing part of production and lowering prices when production exceeds regional demand in particularly windy and sunny periods (which is increasingly emerging as these sources make up the bulk of the electricity supply). For example, California cannot deliver its excess solar energy to the Midwest in the middle of summer days, nor use the constant wind power from, say, Oklahoma, when the sun begins to set on the West Coast.

But integrated network operators could take advantage of the cheapest electricity available in a far larger area and deliver it to high-demand locations, notes Doug Arent, executive director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Whatever renewables were pulling electricity at the time, so be it wind in Wyoming or solar in Florida, they could find a willing market.

Long-distance high-voltage transmission lines also allow for greater development of solar, wind, hydro and geothermal power plants in regions supplied with weather, geology or waterways: developers will be able to count on larger user bases in cities that may be one or two time zones away.

Recently Laboratory presentation by Lawrence Berkeley noted that there are already more than 750 gigawatts of power generation proposals in line in five U.S. regions, waiting for transmission connections that could deliver electricity to customers. The vast majority of them are solar and wind projects. (For comparison, The entire US Navy large plants can produce just over 1,100 gigawatts.)

Other countries are making progress in this area. china appeared as a clear world leader in high-voltage transmission, building tens of thousands of miles of these lines to connect its power plants with cities across the great nation. But while China developed 260 gigawatts of transmission capacity between 2014 and 2021, the whole of North America added only seven, according to research runs Iowa State University.

“The U.S. is lagging behind, but they have every reason to catch up,” said James McCalley, a professor of power systems engineering at Iowa State University and co-author. national network study published late last year, the statement said.

A fraction of what is needed

So how could the US start narrowing that gap?

First, it will take more money. While the Biden administration boasted that the infrastructure package provides $ 73 billion for “clean energy transmission,” the funds are allocated to a wide range of efforts, including research and development, as well as demonstration projects in areas such as carbon capture and clean hydrogen.

The current version of the infrastructure package allocates only about $ 10 to $ 12 billion specifically for the erection of portable towers and wires, notes Rob Gramlich, president of energy consulting firm Grid Strategies.

That’s part of the amount Princeton’s study showed that the U.S. will have to invest in the business over the next nine years. Although federal spending is designed to unlock private capital, the U.S. would still have to invest tens of billions to reach the required scale in this decade, says Jesse Jenkins, co-author of the study at Princeton and an assistant professor at the university.

It is also establishing a $ 2.5 billion revolving loan program for projects, making the Department of Energy actually the initial buyer for new transmission lines. This federal funding could help launch long-running but necessary transfer projects before a developer can line up customers. That could alleviate the ongoing chicken and egg problem between increased electricity production and the construction of lines needed for transportation, observers say.

Eventually the federal government can sell those rights to clean power plants that need access to the lines.

It’s a promising political tool that “just needs another zero in that budget line,” Jenkins says.

Permits for issuing permits

Although money is lacking, the proposed infrastructure bill solves approval problems.

A long-standing challenge in many parts of the U.S. is that energy production capacity and energy needs are growing faster than transmission systems. People and businesses want cheap and reliable electricity, but few accept the necessary towers and wires — especially if they seem to deliver electricity and economic benefits mostly to remote areas. There are often aesthetic, environmental, social justice, as well as critiques of business competition.

“If we want to meet our climate goals, we need to come up with ways to approve these big transmission projects – and throughout history we’ve struggled to do that,” said Lindsey Walter, deputy director of climate and energy programs at Third Road, a center-left research center. Washington, in an email.

The 2005 Energy Act sought to resolve these tensions by approving Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) the possibility of including and deregistering projects that could alleviate transmission restrictions in certain areas marked by national electricity transmission corridors. But so far, the Department of Energy has designated only two such areas, in the Mid-Atlantic and in Southern California.

In addition, the Federal Court of Appeal finally limited FERK’s powers, concluding that he has the right to deregister only if states or other jurisdictions hold the application for more than a year. The court concluded that it did not have the possibility to annul the state’s rejection of applications according to the law.

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