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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

New rules to overhaul electric grids could boost wind and solar power

A transmission line construction project near Bingham, Maine, April 11, 2022. Federal regulators on Monday, May 13, 2024, approved sweeping changes to how America’s electric grids are planned and funded, in a move that supporters hope could spur thousands of miles of new high voltage lines. (Renaud Philippe/The New York Times)

By Brad Plumer

Federal regulators earlier this week approved sweeping changes to how America’s electric grids are planned and funded, in a move that supporters hope could spur thousands of miles of new high-voltage power lines and make it easier to add more wind and solar energy.

The new rule by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees interstate electricity transmission, is the most significant attempt in years to upgrade and expand the country’s creaking electricity network. Experts have warned that there aren’t nearly enough high-voltage power lines being built today, putting the country at greater risk of blackouts from extreme weather while making it harder to shift to renewable sources of energy and cope with rising electricity demand.

A big reason for the slow pace of grid expansion is that operators rarely plan for the long term, the commission said.

The nation’s three main electric grids are overseen by a patchwork of utilities and regional grid operators that mainly focus on ensuring the reliability of electricity to homes and businesses. When it comes to building new transmission lines, grid operators tend to be reactive, responding after a wind-farm developer asks to connect to the existing network or once a reliability problem is spotted.

The new federal rule, which was two years in the making, requires grid operators around the country to identify needs 20 years into the future, taking into account factors like changes in the energy mix, the growing number of states that require wind and solar power and the risks of extreme weather.

Grid planners would have to evaluate the benefits of new transmission lines, such as whether they would lower electricity costs or reduce the risk of blackouts, and develop methods for splitting the costs of those lines among customers and businesses.

“We must plan our nation’s grid for the long term,” said Willie Phillips, a Democrat who chairs the energy commission. “Our country’s aging grid is being tested in ways that we’ve never seen before. Without significant action now, we won’t be able to keep the lights on in the face of increasing demand, extreme weather, and new technologies.”

The commission approved the rule by a 2-1 vote, with the two Democratic commissioners in favor and the lone Republican, Mark Christie, opposed. Christie said the rule would allow states that want more renewable energy to unfairly pass on the costs of the necessary grid upgrades to their neighbors.

“This rule utterly fails to protect consumers,” Christie said. He said it “was intended to facilitate a massive transfer of wealth from consumers to for-profit, special interests, particularly wind and solar developers.”

It could take years for the rule to have an effect, and the commission could face legal challenges from states concerned about higher costs.

Nationwide, energy companies have proposed more than 11,000 wind, solar and battery projects, but many are in limbo because there’s not enough capacity on the grid to accommodate them. What’s more, individual developers are currently required to pay for grid upgrades to accommodate their projects in a process that is piecemeal and slow.

Some critics say that’s like asking a trucking company to pay for an additional lane on a highway that all motorists ultimately use. A better approach, they say, would be to plan ahead for broad upgrades with the costs shared by a wide set of energy providers and users.

But the question of who pays for those grid expansions has sparked furious debate.

Officials in states that are less enthusiastic about wind and solar power, such as Kentucky or West Virginia, say they could be forced to foot the bill for new multibillion-dollar transmission lines meant to help states such as New Jersey or Illinois fulfill their renewable energy ambitions.

To allay those concerns, the commission laid out guidelines around how to split the costs of new transmission projects. Before any lines are planned, utilities and grid operators are supposed to work with states on a formula for allocating costs to customers based on the potential benefits from the new lines.

Christie said the final rule didn’t give states enough power to object to how the costs would be shared. But Allison Clements, the other Democrat on the commission, said that giving each state a veto was “a recipe for inaction.”

The rule would also require utilities and grid operators to consider new technologies that might cost more upfront but could make grids more efficient and deliver long-term benefits, such as advanced conductors that can carry twice as much current as traditional lines.

Environmental groups and renewable energy companies praised the new rules.

“This is a monumental day in the fight against climate change,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who had urged the commission to pass a forceful grid-planning rule.

The new rule affects grid planning within 12 large regions around the country, but it wouldn’t require the planning of transmission to connect those different regions to each other, which some experts say is an even bigger need. The rule would also not affect the main grid in Texas, which is insulated from federal regulations because it doesn’t cross state lines.

The rule also doesn’t address the logistical and political challenges of constructing new long-distance power lines. It can take a decade or more for developers to locate a project through numerous jurisdictions, receive permits from a patchwork of different federal and state agencies and resolve lawsuits about spoiled views or damage to ecosystems.

The Biden administration recently finalized a program intended to cut the federal permitting time for certain large transmission lines in half. But speeding things up further might require action from Congress, where lawmakers have struggled to agree on new transmission policies.

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