New rules overhauling electric grids could boost wind and solar power

Federal regulators on Monday approved sweeping changes to the way America's electric grids are planned and financed, which proponents hope will lead to thousands of miles of new high-voltage power lines and make it easier to add more wind and solar power. Will be done.

The new rule from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees interstate electricity transmission, is the most significant effort in years to upgrade and expand the nation's creaking electricity network. Not nearly enough high-voltage power lines are being built today, putting the country at increased risk of blackouts from extreme weather, experts warn, while switching to renewable sources of energy and coping with rising power demand may become harder. Has gone.

The Commission said a major reason for the slow pace of grid expansion is that operators rarely plan for the long term.

The country's three main electricity grids are overseen by a group of utilities and regional grid operators that focus primarily on ensuring electricity reliability for 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 an existing network or when reliability problems emerge.

The new federal rule, which took two years to create, requires grid operators across the country to identify needs 20 years into the future, taking into account factors such as changes in the energy mix, the growing number of states requiring wind and solar power. Have to keep this in mind. and extreme weather risks.

Grid planners must evaluate the benefits of new transmission lines, such as whether they will lower electricity costs or reduce the risk of blackouts, and develop ways to split the costs of those lines between customers and businesses.

“We must plan for our nation's grid for the long term,” said Democrat Willie Phillips, chairman of the Energy Commission. “Our nation's aging grid is being tested in ways we have never seen before. Without significant action now, we will not 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 two Democratic commissioners in favor and the lone Republican, Mark Christie, opposed. Mr Christie said the rule would allow states that want more renewable energy to unfairly shift the costs of needed grid upgrades onto their neighbors.

“This rule completely fails to protect consumers,” Mr Christie said. “It was intended to facilitate the massive transfer of wealth from consumers to profit-seeking special interests, particularly wind and solar developers,” he said.

The rule could take years to take effect, and the commission could face legal challenges from states concerned about high costs.

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

Some critics say it's like asking a trucking company to pay for an extra lane on a highway that ultimately all motorists use. They say a better approach would be to plan ahead for comprehensive upgrades, with the cost shared by a broader group of energy providers and users.

But the question of who pays for those grid extensions has sparked fierce debate.

Officials in states less enthusiastic about wind and solar power, such as Kentucky or West Virginia, say they should be encouraged by new multibillion-dollar transmission lines built to help states like New Jersey or Illinois meet their renewable energy ambitions. You may be forced to pay the bill.

To address those concerns, the Commission issued guidelines on how to divide the costs of new transmission projects. Before any lines are planned, utilities and grid operators have to work out a formula with states to allocate costs to customers based on the potential benefits from new lines.

There are some examples of this. The grid that handles electricity in 15 Midwest states, known as MISO, recently approved $10.3 billion in new power lines, partly because many of its states have ambitious renewable energy goals for which More transmission is required. MISO estimates that these lines would bring total benefits of $69 billion, including lower fuel costs and fewer blackouts. The grid operator was then able to split the cost even among states that did not have renewable policies but would share in the rewards.

“It's very hard, and not everyone got what they wanted, but we all agreed that we would sit in a room and figure it out,” said Carrie Zalewski, a former Illinois state regulator who now heads American Clean Power. Are with the association. A renewable energy trading group.

Mr Christie said the final rule did not give states enough power to object to how costs would be shared. But Alison Clements, the commission's other Democrat, said giving each state a veto was “a recipe for inaction.”

The rule would also require utilities and grid operators to consider new technologies that may cost more but could make the grid more efficient and provide long-term benefits, such as advanced conductors that are faster than traditional lines. Can carry double the current.

Environmental groups and renewable energy companies praised the new rules.

“This is an important day in the fight against climate change,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic majority leader, who urged the commission to pass a stronger grid-planning rule.

Last year, Mr. Schumer and other Democrats warned that efforts to fight climate change could fail if the nation's grids were not improved. Power plants that burn coal and gas are a major source of pollution that is dangerously warming the planet. While the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act funneled hundreds of billions of dollars into clean alternatives like wind and solar power, a recent analysis found that half of that legislation's climate benefits could be lost if the United States couldn't build new transmission faster. . motion.

It remains to be seen how effective the new rule will be, as it will depend on how grid operators implement it. Ari Pesko, director of the Electricity Law Initiative at Harvard Law School, said a 2011 effort by the commission to encourage transmission planning largely failed because many utilities were opposed to new long-distance lines that would threaten their monopoly. Could have reduced it. Due to the decentralized nature of the country's grids, federal regulators can only do so much to force operators into compliance.

“I suspect this rule will be helpful in parts of the country that already have greater transmission development momentum” such as the Northeast, Mr. Pescow said. “But in places where large utilities are resistant to more transmission, I don't know if FERC can do much.”

The new rule affects grid planning in 12 large areas across the country, but will not require planning for transmission to connect those different areas to each other, which some experts say is an even greater need. The rule also will not affect the main grid in Texas, which is untouched by federal regulations because it does not cross state lines.

The rule also does not address the logistical and political challenges of building new long-distance power lines. It can take a decade or more for developers to navigate a project through multiple jurisdictions, obtain permits from a patchwork of different federal and state agencies, and resolve lawsuits over bad ideas or damage to ecosystems.

The Biden administration recently finalized a program aimed at halving federal permitting times for some large transmission lines. But speeding things up further may require action from Congress, where lawmakers have struggled to agree on new transmission policies.

However, in a separate rulemaking Monday, the Federal Energy Commission outlined some situations in which it could overrule state objections to a small subset of new power lines.

At issue is a set of ten “national interest power transmission corridors” that the Department of Energy has tentatively identified across the country – locations where new lines would be particularly beneficial. If state regulators block or delay a project in those corridors, the federal commission could step in to approve it.

But some experts question how often that will happen, since the Commission has historically preferred to cooperate with states.

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