By Tim McDonnell
The future of the US electric grid will be on the line on Sept. 30, when the House of Representatives votes on a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that is at the heart of president Joe Biden’s agenda.
The bill includes about $27 billion for the grid, including loans to utility companies to invest in climate change protections, cybersecurity and software upgrades, and funding for transmission projects.
But the bill’s most important provision for the grid isn’t about money. It’s a tweak to an obscure law that should make it easier for developers to build long-distance, high-voltage transmission lines, a necessary ingredient for a grid with lots of renewable energy that has been stymied by jealous utilities. But it doesn’t go far enough, some experts say, to truly clear the path to one of Biden’s goals: a carbon-free grid by 2035.
The infrastructure bill gives FERC more power
The infrastructure bill extends FERC’s authority, such that it can overrule those commissions. To do so, it must grant a special designation to the land in question—but the bill also expands the list of factors FERC can use to make that designation. The bill also allows the Department of Energy (DOE) to enter contracts for up to half of the power transmitted through any proposed lines, creating more certainty for investors.
All of this will make it easier for the DOE to design a grid that is more dynamic, lower-cost, cleaner, and better adapted to climate change impacts, said Steve Cicala, an energy economist at Tufts University and an expert on grid decarbonization.
But even if the bill passes, FERC and project developers will still have to jump through more hoops to approve transmission projects than they currently do for new oil and gas pipelines, Cicala said. More red tape needs to come down before enough high-voltage transmission lines can go up.
“The bill gets things flowing like mud rather than concrete, which is how they flow now,” Cicala said. “But there’s enough private sector interest in building transmission lines, if only they could only get approval for it, that streamlining this process is a lot more important than throwing money at it.”