Landmark transmission reform could dramatically speed US energy transition

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Monday issued a sweeping reform to transmission grid planning, one that proponents say is a major, much-needed win for the effort to transition the country’s power sector away from fossil fuels.

FERC’s action was praised by clean energy and climate advocates, who’ve been pushing the agency for years to craft a ​“strong rule” around long-term planning, with provisions they say are vital to build the tens of billions of dollars of new high-voltage power lines necessary to meet the country’s energy goals. They say the new rules will allow the U.S. to connect gigawatts of new clean energy projects to the grid, reduce power costs, and improve grid reliability across the country.

But critics — including Republican FERC Commissioner Mark Christie, who voted against the rule, in opposition to fellow commissioner Allison Clements and FERC chair Willie Phillips, both Democrats — say that the order abrogates key state authority to the federal government and that it will face serious challenges in court. Legal experts say the rule could be vulnerable to being overturned by legal challenges if it ends up in front of a court that favors the so-called major questions doctrine.

In the face of these critiques, Phillips and Clements insisted that the new long-term transmission planning rules — including a provision that will make it harder for individual states to opt out of paying for transmission upgrades — are far less costly than sticking with the status quo. Clements has called the current way of planning new power lines ​“piecemeal,” and both she and Phillips have warned that it is untenable given the challenges the country’s grid faces.

Those challenges go beyond the urgent need to eliminate carbon emissions from the power sector. The country also faces increasing blackout risks — a product of more extreme weather as well as an inability to build and connect clean energy projects fast enough to replace economically uncompetitive fossil-fueled power plants.

“We are at a transformational moment for the electric grid, with phenomenal load growth from a domestic manufacturing boom, unprecedented construction of data centers fueling an AI revolution, and ever-expanding electrification,” Phillips said during Monday’s meeting. ​“At the same time, the resource mix is at an inflection point, with aging infrastructure, economics, and state policies leading resources to retire.”

“On top of all of this, extreme weather events have become the norm, and the electric grid is routinely being pushed to the brink,” he said. ​“Yet in the face of these challenges, high-voltage power line construction has declined to a record low in 2022.”

The sluggish buildout of new power lines is a key hurdle facing the U.S. energy transition. The volume of clean energy projects waiting to plug into the power grid is at a record high, in large part because the transmission capacity needed to bring more wind, solar, and battery storage projects online simply doesn’t exist.

Much more about the FERC rule in the article.

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