New transmission lines key to clean energy future

Multi-state cooperations must become the norm

STATELY WIND turbines and neat arrays of solar farms provide vivid images for a much-anticipated era of abundant renewable energy. But it is the relatively mundane network of transmission lines that is the linchpin for the next generation of clean energy. And the reality is New England’s transmission capacity currently falls far short of what’s needed to deliver the transformational amounts of wind and solar power within our reach.

In simple terms, New England’s grid has been built for a legacy New England energy portfolio that predominantly relies on fossil fuels. The new era of clean energy will require more emission-free energy to replace fossil fuels and power electric heating and transportation, creating the need for new and more robust transmission capacity. Otherwise, many ocean lease areas will remain idle and potential solar farms will sit fallow, squandering much of the potential to decarbonize the energy sources that feed the grid.

In the meantime, New England not only relies on fossil fuels to power its grid, it remains precariously dependent on natural gas for about half of its electricity. This overreliance on gas subjects the region to volatile pricing that drove up electricity prices this winter as the war in Ukraine drove gas prices up.

RENEW published a transmission blueprint that explained how the problem is growing at an alarming rate with both short-term and long-term challenges.  Costs to connect offshore wind to southeast New England are reaching hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade undersized energy lines. Inadequate transmission has stifled development of land-based wind and solar energy potential in northern New England.  Just as troubling, existing wind and solar generators are increasingly required to turn off due to inadequate transmission, which squanders clean energy and increases costs. Recent collaboration between Maine and Massachusetts to procure transmission and wind power from Northern Maine is an important first step, but more needs to be done.

New England’s transmission challenge requires a new paradigm of interstate cooperation, planning, and investment. Offshore, wind assets need a coordinated approach to procure transmission to harness at least 15,000 megawatts. Onshore renewable assets, both wind and solar, will require new transmission lines to reach their potential and help phase out legacy fossil fuel generation plants.

With wind and solar developers lining up to usher New England into a new energy era, there’s a growing urgency and unity to address the transmission challenge and a recognition that investing both in legacy and new transmission infrastructure must emerge as a priority. With federal infrastructure dollars available, the New England states have teamed up to create the Joint State Innovation Partnership for Offshore Wind to propose transmission projects that can secure funding from the Department of Energy. It’s a competitive funding opportunity that will award $250 million per selected project that provides innovative approaches to transmission, storage, and distribution infrastructure.

This level of multi-state cooperation, manifested in the newly formed New England States Regional Transmission Initiative, must become the norm if we are to meet the clean energy needs of New England. For beyond the current efforts to secure federal funding, the states must remain together to grapple with ongoing transmission infrastructure investments and get projects built.

New England voters in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine strongly support (92 percent) multi-state efforts to build new transmission, according to a poll commissioned in March by RENEW Northeast. Moreover, the polling also indicates that voters are supportive (upwards of 90 percent) of new transmission lines being built in or near their communities.

And despite growing energy cost concerns, a solid majority in the poll (69 percent) indicated they would be willing to pay more for transmission to bring more renewable energy into the grid. Ratepayers stand to receive a return on this investment beyond making vitally environmental progress: Building transmission to facilitate the next round of offshore wind projects will enable new clean energy to displace more expensive power plants, reducing prices by over $600 million each year. Investing in the grid proactively will avoid piecemeal upgrades that could require the same transmission lines to be rebuilt multiple times or necessitate expensive and disruptive projects that can be avoided through better planning.

New England’s abundant renewable assets need a next-generation transmission system that’s realized through multi-state cooperation and planning. By unlocking the full potential of our renewable energy assets, it promises to be a critically important and valuable investment that will pay us back with clean energy and cost savings.

Francis Pullaro is the executive director of RENEW Northeast, an association of the renewable energy industry and environmental public interest groups in New York and New England.