Electricity transmission faces challenges at the intersection of technology and policy

Liza (Toher) Reed

Liza (Toher) Reed, Ph.D. started her electricity journey at Ohio State with a BS and MS in Electrical and Computer Engineering. She detoured through jobs in finance and wireless communication before finding her home in energy policy, where she advocates for technology investment and adoption. In this piece, she describes the policy side of a technical problem: expanding capacity of the electricity grid. She is the Research Manager for Low Carbon Technology Policy at the Niskanen Center where she analyzes and advocates for clean energy infrastructure policies. She is an expert in high voltage direct current technology and transmission policy. The views here are her own, and do not express the opinion of the ECE Alumni Society. This piece is based on previously published work on the Niskanen website.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) passed both chambers of Congress with bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Biden on November 15, 2021. The legislation includes the most significant transmission policies in the last 15 years, including two key provisions addressing Grid Infrastructure Resilience and Reliability and a few billion dollars in funding. This is a victory for transmission advocates, but not enough to ensure the high capacity, long-distance lines needed to meet decarbonization goals in a timely and cost-effective manner.

In the shift to a low-carbon economy, cars and many industrial sectors will increasingly rely on electricity. The additional demand and the shift to low- and no-carbon generation such as wind, solar, nuclear, and geothermal, combined with battery storage, will require a similar or greater increase in transmission capacity. Though distributed energy resources will meet some of this demand, many studies find that transmission is critical to achieving net zero goals in a cost-effective manner.

Decarbonization pathways may require two or three times more transmission capacity than the US has today. A 2016 study by researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called for a high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission network spanning the country as part of the lowest-cost solution for reducing emissions by 80 percent by 2030. The recent Princeton Net-Zero America study found that transmission capacity may need to triple, expanding traditional alternating current lines and adding interstate HVDC. Though the levels of expansion and technology options vary, transmission consistently plays an important role in decarbonization pathways across analyses by federal agencies, universities, and industry groups.

Transmission expansion faces policy challenges across 5 “Ps”: 

black electric tower under blue sky
  • Planning: stakeholders agreeing on what’s needed and where
  • Permitting: regulators approving lines and locations
  • Paying: benefiting entities (typically utilities) agreeing on how to split up the costs
  • Participation: states, landowners, and communities accepting the project
  • Process: developers and investors reducing risk through a scalable process. 

The IIJA which just became law moves policies forward in permitting and paying. 

Permitting is a challenge because there is a mismatch between the broad, national-scale benefits of interstate transmission and the narrow scope that state-level authorities over transmission lines can consider when approving a project. The law expands the narrow existing federal authority for permitting transmission lines. Under existing rules, the federal government can override state-level permitting processes that take longer than one year to approve a project in corridors the Department of Energy (DOE) declares National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors. Currently, the DOE can declare those corridors based on existing congestion, i.e., areas where new transmission would allow more low-cost energy on to the grid and reduce the costs for consumers. The updates in the IIJA allow the DOE to designate corridors based on current and projected congestion and to consider both energy security and the ability of generators to connect to the grid. This allows the DOE to proactively identify areas that will need transmission capacity to enable decarbonization.

As far as paying goes, the Act creates a new funding mechanism for financing lines. It allows the DOE to enter into contracts for up to 50 percent capacity of a transmission line, offsetting some of the risks of building new lines that might not be fully contracted with generators and customers at groundbreaking.

The Act includes $20B for grid funding overall, with only a few billion for transmission. The remaining dollars are allocated to other investments, including distribution and local resilience measures.

These provisions represent an important moment for transmission policy, one not seen in more than a decade. The implementation of these provisions, and any actions by Congress or the states across the remaining 3Ps, will determine if this moment can become momentum for the grid.

The EE/ECE Alumni Society Board thanks Dr. Reed for sharing her expertise on transmission technology and policy. If you would like to share some of your own work related to ECE topics, please reach out to David Bradway. If you enjoyed this article, please sign up to receive our updates at Membership | EE/ECE Alumni Society.

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