Electric grids are a hidden weak spot in world’s climate plans, report warns
By Brad Plumer
Even as clean energy technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles spread rapidly across the globe, most countries are falling perilously behind in building the power lines and electric grids needed to support them, the International Energy Agency said Tuesday in an extensive analysis.
The report estimated that nations around the world will need to build or upgrade roughly 50 million miles of power lines by 2040 if they want to meet the goals they have set for adding vast amounts of renewable power, switching from gasoline-powered cars to plug-in vehicles and replacing gas furnaces with electric heat pumps.
That’s a staggering task, equivalent to nearly doubling the size of the world’s existing electric grids in just two decades. Countries would need to double their investment in transmission lines and other infrastructure, to $600 billion per year by 2030, the report said. Yet with the notable exception of China, investments in grids have been declining in many countries.
“Electric grids are really a blind spot for clean electricity everywhere,” Fatih Birol, director of the International Energy Agency, said in an interview earlier this year. “Policymakers are all thinking about building new renewable power plants but they haven’t paid the same attention to building grids. It’s like being focused on building the fastest, most beautiful car you possibly can, but then you forget to build the roads for it.”
Wind and solar power often require long-distance transmission lines to connect breezy and sunny regions in remote rural areas with population centers. Both of those sources are projected to account for 80% of new electric capacity between now and 2040, as countries seek cleaner sources of electricity to cut emissions and tackle climate change.
But a lack of grid infrastructure is holding back wind and solar power. Globally, there are at least 3,000 gigawatts of renewable energy waiting for permission to connect to power lines — equivalent to five times the amount of solar and wind installed last year. In the United States, wait times to connect new power plants to the grid can reach five years or more. That logjam is caused partly by grid operators who are overwhelmed with a flood of requests for new wind and solar projects and partly by a lack of transmission capacity.
Many countries are struggling to build new power lines, which can face opposition from communities along their path. Consider the fate of the Südlink transmission project in Germany, originally proposed in 2014 to bring wind power from the gusty North to help replace power from nuclear reactors in the South that were set to close. That line won’t be finished until 2026 at the earliest, in part because of public opposition that forced developers to bury the lines underground, causing delays and tripling the cost.
In the United States, it took 17 years for developers to win approval for the SunZia project, a 550-mile transmission line to deliver electricity from an enormous wind farm in New Mexico to consumers in Arizona and California, after years of legal battles and route changes.
Utilities also need to upgrade local infrastructure in cities, such as transformers and distribution lines, to handle an influx of power demand from electric vehicle charging stations. That can take time: In the Netherlands, some 3,000 neighborhoods will have to wait until 2025 before they can install car charging ports.
At the same time, extreme weather events made worse by global warming, such as heat waves and wildfires, are increasing the risk of blackouts, which means countries will need to spend additional money to fortify their electric grids.
Each country faces different challenges in upgrading their grids, the report said. In India, Indonesia and South Korea, the financial health of local utilities has been a challenge. In much of sub-Saharan Africa, where hundreds of millions of people still lack access to electricity, the high cost of borrowing money is a major problem. In the United States, European Union and Japan, regulators may need to streamline permitting and planning processes.
Technology can also help. One recent report by the Brattle Group estimated that utilities in the United States could save $35 billion per year if they used existing grid infrastructure more efficiently — such as staggering the times when people charge their electric cars, or using home batteries and rooftop solar power to juggle the flow of power or even paying businesses to use less electricity when demand is peaking.
If countries can’t expand their grids rapidly, it could have major consequences for climate change.
The report examines a “grid delay” scenario in which countries are slow to add new power lines over the next few decades. In that case, nations would emit 58 billion more tons of carbon dioxide between 2030 and 2050 than is expected under current policies, because additions of wind and solar would slow and demand for coal and natural gas would rise. That’s equivalent to the emissions from all the world’s power plants over the past four years.