Getting to yes on electricity transmission infrastructure

We need consensus on selecting, paying for projects

Second in a series

ANY VISION of the future decarbonized power system is sure to include hundreds of wind turbines dotting the Atlantic Ocean to power homes and businesses across New England. While the eye is drawn to the blades spinning above the water, equally important to this vision is what’s going on under the sea and back on land.

Transmission infrastructure–like substations, high-voltage lines, and underwater cables–will be a vital component of getting electricity generated by remote renewable projects to New England’s electricity consumers. Reaching the clean energy future the region desires will require collaboration and agreement from state and federal decision makers on where this infrastructure will be built and how it will be funded.

In New England, sharing a power grid across state borders provides reliability, market, and environmental benefits to residents in all six states. Over the past two decades, the region has invested nearly $12 billion to make the transmission system more efficient and reliable. These upgrades were made possible through an agreement reached by the majority of states and industry stakeholders on a formula for sharing costs among New England ratepayers.

We do not, at this time, have a similar arrangement for the construction of transmission infrastructure needed to achieve the states’ policy goals developed to combat climate change. As the power system evolves to one with more renewable resources and energy storage, state officials will again need to reach consensus on how transmission projects will be selected and paid for, based on the transmission planning conducted by ISO New England.

While these broader discussions are ongoing, the ISO is conducting long-range research projects, including the 2050 Transmission Study. Last year, the states asked the ISO to study how we could reliably and cost-effectively incorporate large-scale clean energy and distributed energy resources, such as rooftop solar and small batteries, by 2050, when most states need to meet decarbonization targets. The study, which we’ll release next year, includes interim looks at 2035 and 2040. It will examine several scenarios for future electricity generation and consumption developed by the states, based on different state policies and pathways toward meeting their decarbonization goals.

We are working on making this type of longer-range transmission planning a recurring effort. For these efforts to be useful, however, the ISO needs to know where, when, and how much electricity will be needed in the future. The answers to these questions will depend heavily on the electrification of the heating and transportation sectors, which is a big part of the states’ climate change agendas. Public policy decisions will determine how quickly this change happens.

Another study is looking at how to factor in greater quantities of rooftop solar, batteries in homes, and other innovations that lower electricity demand.

This long-term planning work is being done at the same time ISO engineers are working to help developers safely connect renewable projects already proposed–whether they are building traditional transmission, or connecting onshore wind, solar farms, or battery storage units. The ISO determines what transmission upgrades would be needed for these projects to reliably connect to the region’s power system, and developers are then responsible for making any upgrades.

Much of this work recently has centered on offshore wind projects looking to connect to the grid on Cape Cod. The ISO has determined that 1,600 megawatts of projects can connect immediately, while another 1,200 megawatts can connect reliably if a new transmission line is built between West Barnstable and Bourne. The next study will look at connecting up to 3,200 megawatts of additional offshore wind to the Cape and surrounding areas. Collectively, these projects have the potential to power millions of homes if they are all producing at top capacity and the power can reach consumers.

While ISO New England has an important role to play, it is state and federal regulators who oversee siting and permitting of power sources or transmission lines. Because of local opposition to the construction of these projects and other factors, these investments can take a long time to come to fruition in New England. To achieve decarbonization goals, the region must be proactive in developing infrastructure that is available when a new generator is ready to connect. Developers, state regulators, and siting authorities may also decide that burying some lines, though substantially more expensive, may address local concerns, while reducing vulnerability during extreme weather. Regional coordination may not alleviate all local opposition, but can help make the siting process more successful.

Meet the Author

Gordon van Welie

President and CEO, ISO New England
Developing the transmission infrastructure needed to unlock a clean energy future will require a coordinated decision-making process. A well-defined decision-making structure between the New England states and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), relying on ISO analysis, will most efficiently tackle these issues.

In the coming months, ISO New England will release the 2050 Transmission Study and the region will be able to see different versions of the future grid. With information from this study, the states will then need to begin the important discussions on what infrastructure will be needed for decarbonization and how the region should pay for it.

This is the second of a four-part series from ISO New England CEO Gordon van Welie on the evolution of the region’s power system.