Three steps for turning the power grid around

Right now, most of region's transmission infrastructure is outdated

THE UTTER DEVASTATION of summer flooding in New England and New York and the Canadian wildfire smoke that shrouded the Northeast in an orange haze in June shouts an inescapable truth louder than any voice: Climate change knows no geographic boundaries. Like it or not, the climate crisis is a global and regional issue. We’re in it together, and we’ll have to get out of it together.

Most New England states are committed to making progress on climate action, but states won’t meet their goals without a holistic approach. We need a drastic cut in carbon emissions and no amount of solar, wind, or electric vehicles will get us there without a robust, resilient, and dynamic grid across our states. Getting to 100 percent clean energy requires regional solutions, and New England governors should take the opportunity to show how it’s done.

The words “regional transmission system” aren’t exactly inspiring, but a 100 percent clean energy future should be. And transmission is the missing link between where we are and where we need to be.

Transmission infrastructure — the big wires that move electricity from where it is generated to where it is used — is as critical to our way of life as roads and bridges; it’s the reason your lights turn on when you flip a switch.

Right now, much of our transmission infrastructure is outdated. Notably, Americans for a Clean Energy Grid recently gave New England a D+ grade in transmission planning and development and an F on its ability to bring new clean energy onto the existing grid. Experts estimate that in order to create a grid that can support our ambitious goals, New England will need to build between 10 and 37 gigawatts of new transmission capacity through new lines and upgrades.

We’ve got to turbocharge our plans. With millions of New Englanders relying on the energy grid to power our lives and businesses every day, the stakes are too high to fail. And with climate change driving hotter temperatures and longer heat waves, demand on the grid is only rising. In 1975, just 13 percent of new homes in the Northeast were built with air conditioning. Today, that number has increased to 89 percent. As New Englanders adapt to the new realities of climate change and take advantage of electric heat pump technologies, the energy grid has to adapt too.

With regional transmission, New England governors have a chance to achieve a rare win-win-win. A regional transmission push will accelerate the clean energy transition, make the energy grid more reliable, lower electricity costs, and bring thousands of new jobs to New England. Remember how we said transmission lines are like roads and bridges? The Interstate Highway System was a triumph of interstate cooperation that generated massive short- and long-term economic gains, and it’s an example of what’s possible when we work together.

Here’s how New England governors can lead the way in building a 21st-century grid.

Lead from the front and drive real community engagement. Gubernatorial leadership sets the direction and creates the political will to drive this effort forward. Building upon existing good work, New England’s governors should publicly announce a joint vision for transmission that includes commitments to dramatically increase capacity for clean energy in the region and cut the development timeline for interstate transmission projects by half, sufficiently resource and staff state energy offices, and require annual reporting. Governors should also bring together a broad set of stakeholders — including environmental justice communities and advocates—to develop community engagement plans.

Take a region-wide, holistic approach. The states in New England should work with the region’s grid operator and a broad set of stakeholders to incorporate existing planning efforts across the region. A collaborative approach will reduce both redundancy and cost, and ensure that projects get built.  Key to this effort is achieving an agreement on how to share future project costs to ensure that the benefits of new transmission are spread equitably among the states, in line with the cost of investment.

Spur innovation with competition and deploy grid-enhancing technologies. Harnessing competition drives costs down for ratepayers, and it encourages utilities to think more creatively to meet the region’s transmission needs. In addition, grid-enhancing technologies, reconductoring, and other innovative strategies can use existing transmission corridors to lower costs, generate system savings, accelerate decarbonization, and contribute to a more reliable grid.

In New England and across the country, the clean energy transition is beckoning. But strong leadership is an essential ingredient. Transmission development often takes 10 years or more — the faster we move, the better.

As the saying goes, the best time to do this was a decade ago, but the second-best time is now.

Jeremy McDiarmid is managing director and general counsel and Kat Burnham is senior principal for the industry association Advanced Energy United.