Energy Department invests billions in power grids, but warns it’s not enough | ET REALITY


The Department of Energy on Monday announced 1.3 billion dollars to help build three major power lines in six states, part of a new injection of money from Washington to upgrade America’s power grids so they can handle more wind and solar energy and better tolerate extreme weather.

But officials warned that the money will not be enough. In an important report Released the same day, the Energy Department said the country’s vast network of transmission lines may need to be expanded by two-thirds or more by 2035 to meet President Biden’s goals of powering the country with clean energy.

That would help reduce carbon dioxide emitted by gas- and coal-fired power plants, pollution that is warming the planet. But it would require hundreds of billions of dollars in investments and a frenetic pace of construction. “We need to seriously develop transmission,” said Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.

There is no single grid. The country’s electrical system is divided into a mosaic of regions, each overseen by different operators. But many face similar challenges.

One of the main ones is that there is not enough transmission capacity to transport energy from distant wind and solar farms to population centers. Many regions are at risk of blackouts during heat waves or powerful storms, which are expected to worsen with climate change. Obsolete infrastructure needs to be replaced.

The Department of Energy report, the Study of national transmission needs, looks at which places would benefit from new or expanded power lines. For example, customers in parts of Wisconsin and Michigan pay high prices because local grids are too congested to bring in cheaper power from elsewhere. The Mid-Atlantic grid is vulnerable to electricity shortfalls during winter storms because it lacks sufficient capacity to import power from its neighbors.

But there are significant barriers to network expansion. While the study found that new transmission capacity between different regional networks would have great benefits, projects of this type have hardly been built in recent decades, as they may require approval from more than one state or jurisdiction, leading to disagreements over who should pay.

The federal government has limited authority to direct network planning, in contrast to the way it oversaw the Interstate Highway System. Some regions, such as Texas and the Southeast, have resisted expanding transmission links with their neighbors. And some utilities are wary of new long-distance lines that could undermine their local monopolies.

The Biden administration wants to use the limited tools it has at its disposal. As part of the bipartisan infrastructure bill of 2021, Congress approved more than $20 billion to improve America’s power grids. The Energy Department has begun sending much of that money overseas in recent weeks.

As part of Monday’s announcement, the agency will negotiate a commitment to purchase capacity from three proposed transmission projects: a 748 megawatt power line bringing renewable energy from New Mexico to Arizona, a 1,200 megawatt line bringing Canadian hydroelectric power to Vermont and New Hampshire and a 1,500 megawatt line joining Utah and Nevada.

By acting as an initial client, the agency hopes to provide confidence to developers to move forward with these projects. The government would later sell its rights to private clients and replenish its funds, in order to help other network proposals.

“This is an extremely promising program,” said Rob Gramlich, president of consulting group Grid Strategies. He noted that many transmission projects are plagued by a “chicken or egg” problem: Developers won’t build power lines in windy or sunny regions until there are customers, but renewable projects won’t be built until the lines are installed.

Still, Gramlich said, the agency’s $2.5 billion program To alleviate this problem, only “a very small set of lines” can be supported.

Furthermore, the Department of Energy this month announced $3.5 billion in subsidies for 58 different projects to reinforce power lines against extreme weather conditions, integrate batteries and electric vehicles into local grids, and expand wind and solar energy capacity. That included $464 million for an effort to connect two large regional networks in the Midwest and Great Plains.

Together, those projects could help increase America’s renewable energy capacity by 10 percent, Ms. Granholm said.

The agency has also offered $300 million to help states, tribes and local governments improve their permitting processes for power lines. Some recent projects, such as the SunZia line in New MexicoThey have spent more than a decade trying to acquire permits.

Other, more controversial measures are possible. Congress has given federal regulators authority to override objections of the states for certain power lines considered of national interest. The Biden administration has yet to exercise this power, although it said the study released Monday could help identify potential projects.

A truly huge network expansion could require further action by Congress, such as a bill introduced by Democrats require greater network connectivity between regions. But some utilities and Republicans have criticized that proposal.

In the meantime, technology could help. New Types of Sensors and Software Can Help Utilities send more power through existing lines without the need for costly upgrades, said Julia Selker, executive director of the WATT Coalition, which advocates for so-called grid-enhancing technologies. But most utilities have not yet adopted these tools.

“We will still need a lot of development in transmission, but these are technologies that can be implemented in a year or less,” Ms. Selker said. “That’s a big help as we wait several years to build new large transmission lines.”

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