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News Every Day |

Let’s Build a Lot More Power Lines

Sign up for The Weekly Planet, Robinson Meyer’s newsletter about living through climate change, here.

About a year ago, one of the worst things that can happen to any climate journalist happened to me: I started to care about power lines.

I began to care, specifically, about transmission lines, the subset of power lines that traverse great distances and carry electricity from one region of the country to another. You’ve definitely seen transmission lines—they run along those steel structures you sometimes notice on the highway, unlike distribution lines, which hang from telephone poles and connect to your house. (Thankfully, I do not care about distribution lines.) In the world of climate policy, caring about electricity transmission is roughly like developing a sincere rooting interest in the New York Jets: You have chosen to suffer.

Transmission lines are the circulatory system of America’s power grid. Lately, that grid has been very sick. The U.S. experienced 64 percent more power outages in the last decade than it did during the decade prior, according to a new study from Climate Central, a nonprofit research group. That’s in part because the grid is getting old. Most of the country’s roughly 437,000 miles of transmission lines were built in the 1950s or 1960s and designed to last 50 years; those lines are now reaching the end of their life in a hotter, stormier, and more extreme climate than they were built for.

Even if the grid was holding up fine, though, we would still need more lines. We need to electrify most of the economy in order to eliminate carbon pollution; by 2050, the country must build new transmission lines at twice the pace it does today, according to Princeton’s Net-Zero America report.

But we aren’t doing that. Not even close. America has somehow slowed down its rate of new transmission construction over the past decade; last year, the U.S. built only 386 miles of new transmission capacity.

[Read: A very California lesson on just how weird electricity is]

There’s a way to fix this sorry state of affairs. Senator Joe Manchin’s so-called permitting-reform bill, which is due to be released today, will likely make it easier, faster, and cheaper for the country to build the kind of major new transmission lines that climate change requires. Yet these measures will come at a cost for environmentalists: The bill may authorize some fossil-fuel projects, and it may make it harder for green groups to block new infrastructure projects in court. The trade-offs may be dicey for climate advocates to accept, but its transmission components, considered alone, could very well amount to a win for the climate.

One of the oddities of America’s economy is that there is no national electricity market. This is weirder than it might seem at first. After all, you can find iPhones, pickup trucks, or a loaf of bread at roughly the same price anywhere in the country. Even the price of natural gas is set at just one place—the Henry Hub pipeline nexus, in Louisiana—and it trades within a few cents of that price everywhere, Michael Skelly, a renewable developer and the CEO of Grid United, told me.

But the cost of electricity varies enormously by where you live. It costs about 11 cents to run a dishwasher in Oregon, 12 cents in Florida, 18 cents in New York, and 22 cents in California. The problem is that the U.S. has three independent grids—an eastern region, a western region, and Texas—that divide into 22 subregions and thousands of utilities. Unifying those grids into one, which is possible by building new lines that go from region to region, would remedy one of the economy’s most glaring inefficiencies.

Fixing the grid is also essential to encouraging the growth of renewables. Although the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow all the time, one of the two is usually happening somewhere in the country. The U.S. has unusually well-balanced renewable potential, in fact: In the West, wind and solar generate huge amounts of electricity during the summer, while midwestern wind goes gangbusters in the winter, Skelly said. The only way to tap into America’s renewable potential is by moving electricity across large parts of the country.

But it’s much harder to build transmission than it is to build other types of energy infrastructure. If you want to build a new natural-gas pipeline, for instance, then you only need to go to one place: the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, an independent agency. But if you want to build new transmission, then you need to win the approval of every state, county, city, and in some cases landowner along the proposed route.

These players tend to block new lines either by withholding their permission or by raising endless objections during the environmental-review process, a move that is possible even when a new line is in the obvious best interest of the environment. In 2009, Skelly set out to connect the wind farms of the Oklahoma panhandle with transmission lines in Tennessee. Because the Tennessee Valley Authority hooks into the East Coast’s transmission network, the project would have effectively supplied cheap, zero-carbon energy to Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. But as Russell Gold describes in his excellent book Superpower, that effort failed—after eight years of wrangling over permitting.

The onerous permitting process can even hamper the government itself. In 2009, the Bonneville Power Administration, a federally owned public utility, set out to build the I-5 Corridor Reinforcement Project, a transmission line that would have connected Seattle and Portland, Oregon, to untapped but plentiful wind resources east of the Cascades. The agency prepared an 883-page environmental-impact assessment justifying the project … but after seven years, it could not get the permits to continue.

That’s where permitting reform comes in. This summer, when Manchin agreed to support the Inflation Reduction Act, he forced Chuck Schumer to swear that he would introduce a separate bill later in the year to reform the onerous environmental-review process. Permitting touches many aspects of American infrastructure, and Manchin wasn’t necessarily thinking of transmission lines: He wants to expedite the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which will bring natural gas out of West Virginia to the East Coast. Since then, we haven’t learned a lot about the actual content of the bill, save a one-page bullet-point list and a brief draft reportedly watermarked with the initials of the American Petroleum Institute. (The lobbying group has denied writing or editing the legislation.)

Even without details on the text of the bill, permitting reform has created two unusual camps in Congress. Some Democrats have said that they wouldn’t support such a deal, and Senator Bernie Sanders called it a “huge giveaway to the fossil-fuel industry.” Meanwhile, some Republicans who would typically be open to this sort of legislation are wary of giving Manchin and the Democrats yet another legislative win. It’s no sure thing that permitting reform will become law.

[Read: Not even a single Republican voted for the climate bill]

But for now, based on what we do know, the permitting bill will likely make three big changes to existing law to accelerate the sort of infrastructure we need to build more transmission lines. First, it would let the government declare that a transmission project is “in the national interest,” which would let FERC, the same agency that approves interstate pipelines, run a streamlined permitting process and issue a construction permit. Second, it would let the government set permitting-review deadlines for major transmission projects, so that projects could not get buried under an avalanche of procedural concerns. Finally, it would let FERC say who will pay for a transmission project.

The most important of the three changes might be the final one, the question of who pays for a new line, Rob Gramlich, the founder and president of Grid Strategies and one of the country’s foremost transmission lobbyists, told me. Most transmission projects are not made by the federal government or by developers such as Skelly, but by utilities, who then must divide up the cost of construction among their ratepayers.

“Transmission is a classic ‘public good problem,” Gramlich said, in that it brings lots of small benefits to many people, but nobody wants to pay for them. The bill instructs FERC to allocate the costs of transmission to the customers who will benefit from it the most.

These changes to transmission would reduce U.S. carbon pollution by “hundreds of millions of tons a year by 2030,” according to a memo circulated by Gramlich’s group. That estimate might be a little high, John Larsen, the head of U.S. climate research at the Rhodium Group, an independent energy-research firm, told me. But “more transmission is very good for the country,” he said, “making it easier and faster and cheaper to get a cleaner grid.”

For instance, if you don’t have an easy way to transport electricity across long distances, you might build three mediocre wind plants instead of one stupendous facility. Over the entire electricity grid, those costs start to add up; a recent National Renewable Energy Laboratory study found that it cost 25 percent more to decarbonize the electricity grid if you tried to avoid building new transmission at the same time.

Building more transmission makes sense, and it’s one of the cheapest ways for Americans to reduce their energy costs while fighting climate change. That doesn’t mean it’s a sure thing. The same dynamics that make building new transmission hard may also make it tough to reform the system. We don’t yet know if Manchin’s compromise is, overall, a good deal for the climate. We don’t even know if it will pass yet. But we do know that like it or not, everyone is going to have to care about power lines.

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