Electricity powers nearly everything we do. Our homes, our schools, our businesses and hospitals. And yet, much of the nation’s grid infrastructure is aging and ill-equipped to meet our energy needs in a future marked by increasingly frequent disruptions and growing electric demand.
The Department of Energy drives this point home in its draft Transmission Needs Study, unveiled in late February, which finds a “pressing” need for more electric transmissionthroughout the country, particularly the long-distance power lines that carry energy from one region to another. Overall, DOE finds the U.S. must increase interregional transmission capacity by roughly 120 gigawatts to support expected growth in electricity use and the deployment of clean energy resources.
As a country, our energy needs are rapidly evolving, which DOE makes clear in this report;every future scenario depends on transmission to keep the lights on. The annual number of weather-related power outages between 2011 and 2021 increased 78% compared to the previous decade. Combine that with a growing reliance on electricity to power everything from cars to home heating and cooling systems to industrial processes — expanded and modernized transmission is essential.
DOE finds there is significant need for new transmission connections between nearly every region in the U.S., though each place has its own unique energy needs and faces different challenges when it comes to potential system disruptions. The Mountain region, for example,would benefit from more transmission capacity with its neighbors due to extreme heat and wildfires that may threaten local generation resources. And Texas should forge new connections with the Eastern and Western grids to prevent repeated disasters like Winter Storm Uri.
In this report, DOE also notes the importance of smart planning to expand transmission capacity between regions. Models suggest, for example, that the most effective way to improve line congestion between the Midwest and Delta regions is not to increase connections directly between the two, but instead to build more transmission between the Midwest and the Plains and the Plains and the Delta.
The U.S. has abundant energy resources, much of it from renewable sources, but it is not always located near where customers will use the electricity. Interregional power lines can bring that energy to additional population centers, which reduces the total generation capacity it takes to power reliable grid operations. That flexibility also means major cost savings for consumers. A recent study from NRDC and GE Energy Consulting found that expanded transmission would save consumers $3 billion a year in 2035.
Despite well-documented need, the U.S. has fallen far behind in building this modern transmission system. Most U.S. grid infrastructure was built in the 1950s and 1960s and has reached or exceeded its intended 50-year lifespan. Meanwhile, most recent transmission development has been limited to smaller-scale projects within a single region. In fact, almost no new interregional lines have been planned in the past few decades.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) could issue new regulations within a matter of months that would require utilities and grid operators to factor long-term electric reliability needs into their transmission planning, helping to ensure the grid is equipped to servethe country’s power obligations not just over the next few years but for decades to come.
There is, however, no reason that state and regional authorities have to wait for FERC to act. Historically, transmission planning has been siloed, with each grid operator using different expectations and analyses to underpin their own infrastructure development.
DOE’s study, in mapping the value of transmission across the country, lays a common foundation that all these utilities, state policymakers, transmission planers, and developersshould review and use to guide their efforts. The report is only the first step in a longer DOE process of identifying specific transmission lines that can bring the U.S. closer to a modern, reliable grid. But it is an important product and helpful tool for everyone tasked with designing and developing our transmission system.
Everyone benefits from a better grid. And it’s time to treat this issue with the urgency it demands.
Sarah E. Hunt is president of The Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy and director of Policy and Strategy at the Arizona State University Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Service. Follow her on Twitter @sarahehunt01
Christina Hayes is the Executive Director of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid. Hayes is also the former Vice President for Federal Regulatory Affairs at Berkshire Hathaway Energy.For nearly 10 years she was an at attorney the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, including having served as an advisor to the Chairman. Follow her on Twitter @CsmithhayesREAL