If there is one thing Republicans and Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy can agree on, it is the need to reform the yearslong, expensive and often project-killing process that permitting new, interregional transmission lines has become.
However, as seen at Tuesday’s subcommittee hearing on transmission, sharp disagreements arise on what reforms may be needed and whether they can be put in place in time to permit the thousands of miles of new transmission required for President Biden’s vision of a decarbonized U.S. power system by 2035 and a net-zero economy by 2050.
“Successfully siting interstate transmission lines is notoriously difficult … in large part because of the burdensome and unworkable regulatory environment we face,” said Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), introducing his Prevent Outages With Energy Resiliency Options Nationwide (POWER ON) Act (H.R. 1514). The bill would, he said, “clarify the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s backstop siting authority for interstate transmission projects, while establishing more inclusive engagement processes for states, tribes [and] property owners.”
Other proposed legislation being discussed at the hearing — all sponsored by Democrats — included the:
The CLEAN Future Act, in particular, would also make sure transmission buildout occurs responsibly and does not result in overbuilding, said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chair of the full committee. “New and innovative technologies can allow us to use our existing transmission infrastructure more efficiently. Transmission planning processes can be made more transparent to the public, allowing us all to better understand how need transmission needs are identified,” he said. “These and other measures will help protect ratepayers from unnecessary and excessive transmission infrastructure costs.”
The Republican response to the Democrats’ bills amped up what they see as the practical and economic obstacles to transmission and clean energy buildout. Meeting Biden’s targets for cutting emissions would require “massive electrification on an unprecedented scale and pace for the next 15 years, and it would amount to a construction program 600% larger than any utility buildout that we’ve seen in the last half century,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the ranking member of the full committee.
“You cannot do this without extraordinary mandates and costs on workers and families,” said Rodgers, speaking during the three-hour morning session of the daylong hearing. “That’s why it seems unrealistic, unattainable.”
Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.) raised concerns that building out the interregional, high-voltage lines would require “a very aggressive use of eminent domain,” which would “usurp the rights of states in regard to controlling what gets built in their states.” He pointed to Iowa’s 2017 law prohibiting the use of eminent domain for high-voltage transmission lines across the state and a list of failed transmission projects, such as the Northern Pass transmission line, intended to bring Canadian hydropower to the U.S., which was rejected by New Hampshire.
Even using existing right of ways may not be a solution, Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) said, arguing that rail and highway easements are not sufficiently wide and existing transmission corridors already have high-voltage lines. “How do you envision we have these double-decker lines?” he said. “How are you going to have all these power lines in the same easement?”
The GOP arguments were largely directed at Patricia Hoffman, acting assistant secretary of the Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity, who was the sole witness before the subcommittee’s morning session. While acknowledging the challenges ahead, Hoffman repeatedly focused on the benefits of expanding transmission to meet Biden’s clean energy goals.
Investing in a robust transmission system, she said, “will help minimize power outages, protect the grid against climate-induced extreme weather [and] restore electricity more quickly when outages occur. But most importantly, expanding transmission capacity improves the resilience and flexibility of the energy system by creating more numerous energy delivery pathways.”
Underlining the need for reform, Hoffman pointed to a recent study from Americans for a Clean Energy Grid (ACEG) that identified 22 “ready to go” transmission projects that might be helped by a transmission investment tax credit, which is included in Biden’s American Jobs Plan. Another report found 755 renewable generation projects, most of them solar, sitting in interconnection queues across the country, she said.
Overcoming the barriers will require a “multipronged” approach, Hoffman said. “We have to think about a national plan for interregional transmission projects; really look at the states and what they’ve done for their 10-year plans [and] how can we integrate that so that we actually can address transmission across the United States. It will require a collaborative process with the states to think about the transmission needs where we’d like to develop the next-generation clean generation resources and how to get all that built in a holistic fashion.”
In her written testimony, Hoffman highlighted the DOE’s Transmission Congestion studies conducted every three years and its ability to designate “national interest transmission corridors” in regions where transmission is constrained.
In the afternoon session, ACEG Executive Director Rob Gramlich and Analysis Group’s Susan Tierney endorsed the legislation. Tierney said the bills incorporate many of the recommendations in two recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine reports in which she participated on the future of electric power and decarbonization.
“The bills … would constructively address very persistent impediments to planning for, investment in and siting of transmission infrastructure that is so needed for the U.S. electric system to be fit for purpose in the 21st century,” she said.
Republican members of the committee repeatedly called on former FERC Commissioner Tony Clark, now a senior adviser to law firm Wilkinson Barker Knauer, who expressed concerns over many of the proposals in the legislation.
Clark said he backs efforts to clear roadblocks to needed investment and said he was heartened by FERC’s creation of a state-federal task force on transmission. (See FERC Sets Federal-State Taskforce to Spur New Tx.)
But he said Congress should pursue policies that reflect “bottom-up, not top-down,” decision-making and respect regional differences.
“Any efforts at interregional and regional planning and cost allocation for electric transmission should reflect the plans that are developed first at the local and state levels; they should not be an imposition of a predetermined federal ‘solution’ that may not meet the needs of end-use consumers in each of the states,” said Clark, a former North Dakota regulator.
“This is a large country with diverse natural resource bases and different regional supply-and-demand characteristics. This diversity should caution against the federal government adopting policies that assume all regions need to meet their needs in the exact same way. Indeed, transmission might be the best way to serve customers in a particular state or region, but in another state or region, those goals might be better met by accessing generation that’s closer to load,” he continued.
“What I don’t think you would want to have happen is someone sitting in a conference room in Washington, D.C., drawing bubbles around certain areas of the map that are windy areas and other areas of the map where there are load centers and then drawing a line in between the two and developing plans based simply off that.”
Clark said the federal siting provisions in H.R. 1514 are “much, much broader” than the limited federal backstop authority included in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which was limited to transmission needed for reliability and which he said were “neutered” by court rulings.
“As proposed in this legislation, it broadens it out to include projects that might just be good for renewables, and it does so in a way that pre-empts states probably more aggressively than the original legislation did,” he said.
Gramlich said Congress should fix the two-step process in EPAct05, which had DOE designate transmission corridors and FERC issue permits, with multiyear National Environmental Policy Act reviews required at each step.
“Let’s keep it surgical and targeted. Maybe just say something over 1,000 MW that crosses multiple states is FERC-jurisdictional,” he said. “That gets closer to [the law on] gas pipelines. We’d love to have parity with gas pipelines’ permitting on the electric side.”