Without grid investments, clean power goals may not be met

Existing transmission systems lack enough capacity

AT A TIME our nation and the New England area faces the challenge of fostering economic recovery in the wake of a global pandemic, investment in our electricity transmission system – the backbone of the US power grid – presents an opportunity to not only advance our nation’s fight against climate change, but to create hundreds of thousands of green jobs.

President Biden has established an ambitious goal of reducing emissions from the country’s electricity supply by 2035. Getting there will require investments to modernize the power grid – $8 billion of which were included the president’s recent proposal to strengthen American infrastructure and jumpstart the economy.

The existing electricity transmission system simply doesn’t have the capacity to integrate the amount of clean energy generation already being built.  Because some transmission lines are overloaded, some solar and wind power is curtailed — it never reaches customers. The system operator in New England has warned that without investment in transmission, planned offshore wind facilities off the coast of Cape Cod could face major curtailment.

This problem might get worse.  We’re going to need much more electricity, as it will be needed to fuel transportation, heating, and other sectors in the near future.

To achieve 100 percent clean electricity, we’ll need a large-scale expansion and upgrade of the grid to deliver clean power to population centers. Transmission investment will not only help bring online clean energy, reduce costs for consumers, and enhance resilience and reliability of the grid, it will also create hundreds of thousands of family-supporting jobs.  It will be a shot-in-the-arm for the economy.

But we have a long way to go.  At our current rate, we’ll fall short.  Without the necessary transmission in place, some investment in clean energy generation will never happen, and the economic benefits and jobs that investment would create will go unrealized.

In a study recently conducted for the transmission advocacy group WIRES, the London Economic International (LEI) research group looked at $83 billion of potential investment from approved or recommended transmission projects across the US. The LEI report concluded that, in the near term, these transmission investments would boost gross domestic product by $42 billion, generate $40 billion in local spending, and create 442,000 construction-related jobs.  This doesn’t even count the long-term benefits in operations and maintenance jobs, regional economic benefitsreduced carbon emissions and pollution, and clean energy jobs created by associated wind or solar farms.

According to the LEI report, in New England alone, some $4 billion of new transmission investment in New England is already approved or recommended to regulators.  This could mean thousands of jobs for our region.

Private investors are poised to make these investments.  Federal and state policies will need to be updated to meet the President’s 2035 goals.

What can we do now?  Here are some options:

Improved planning process: Currently, there are major hurdles to regional and inter-regional planning for transmission.

Regulators should consider how to integrate planning for the long and the short term, meeting 2030 goals with an eye toward 2040 goals and beyond.  Comprehensive planning processes can identify projects that meet multiple needs at once, lowering costs, and minimizing construction impacts on nearby communities.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission should consider pro-active reforms that address impacts of the electrification of transportation and heat and consider state and regional goals.  Regulators or legislators could enact policies that accelerate cross-regional transmission projects.

Congress should also consider approaches for streamlining and reducing risks in the siting and permitting process for transmission.

Transmission pricing:  Transmission projects can take a decade to build, causing investors to require stable economic policy before committing hundreds of millions of dollars toward new projects. Congress can urge federal regulators to reduce regulatory risks and provide incentives for investors to plan, fund, and build new transmission infrastructure.  Reasonable return on equity (incentives to will foster transmission investment and provide multiple benefits for customers – including enhanced reliability, reduced emissions, and lower costs.

Tax Incentives:  The investment tax credit and production tax credit programs have led to a boom in development of solar and wind energy projects in the last 15 years.  A similar program for transmission investment could motivate the private sector to tackle complex transmission projects.

Meet the Author

Brian Gemmell

Chief clean energy development officer, National Grid
Our country faces multiple challenges at once: slowing climate change, hardening our infrastructure, reducing emissions in our energy system, and reinvigorating a sluggish economy. Investment in electricity transmission checks all those boxes.  Let’s get started.

Brian Gemmell is chief clean energy development officer at National Grid.  He is a member of the WIRES board of directors.