In the wake of the 2018 midterms, we are looking at a new landscape in Washington: Democrats have taken the House, Republicans keep the Senate. And while we expect Congressional oversight of the Administration to increase and politicians to start posturing already for the 2020, there appear to be few opportunities to get any important legislation passed over the next two years. However, there is a possibility to advance important infrastructure legislation, and if it includes transmission, we can accomplish a major step in promoting sustainable economic growth for a modern, 21st Century economy.
When people think of infrastructure, most immediately conjure roads and bridges. And while these are certainly important, transmission infrastructure is arguably even more so, underpinning modern life itself. Electricity is essential to the most basic aspects we take for granted, from potable water and food storage to waste treatment and nighttime illumination. All of these, plus the constant hum of business and industry, never mind modern conveniences like climate control and basic computing, rely on an uninterrupted flow of electrons to our homes, businesses, and industrial facilities. Yet much of our current transmission infrastructure is unaltered from its original construction, and in many cases is more than half a century old. Furthermore, many transmission lines are already operating at their full capacity, and according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, our current transmission infrastructure was given a “D+”, indicating its inability to meet the future requirements of a modern economy.
There are significant opportunities to modernize and enhance the current grid with new materials and smart technology as well as expand the grid to reach the best and most cost-effective renewable energy resources such as wind and solar energy. In so doing, we can meet the needs of companies and consumers demanding more renewable generation. Fortune 500 companies and cities continue expanding their renewable energy goals; as of this writing, 140 companies have publicly committed to 100 percent renewable energy over the next few decades. To access that clean energy, we need to build the transmission to access it. Additionally, these companies looking to locate manufacturing and expanded facilities are choosing states and communities that offer renewable energy. Both the renewable energy facilities and the new manufacturing opportunities create direct economic development in parts of rural America that need them the most, and these are jobs that cannot be outsourced.
"Transmission expansion does not supplant growth in the energy efficiency and distributed generation arenas"
Enhanced transmission will also play a vital role in protecting our national security by focusing on the most critical areas of resilience and reliability. Grid operators across the country have identified vulnerabilities to both natural disasters and hostile actions, and they must include these factors in their ongoing responsibility to keep the lights on.
Of course, challenges abound. Most large-scale transmission wires cross state lines and are thus challenging to site, permit, and approve across multiple jurisdictions. New legislation can address these challenges in multiple ways. It can provide for an effective federal siting process under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), directing the agency to utilize its authority under the Federal Power Act to designate transmission corridors – as they do already for pipelines – to help shift siting burdens away from state regulators and expedite construction. It can require effective interregional planning processes to successfully integrate distinct transmission regions, allowing more efficient flow between them. And it can provide incentives in the form of tax breaks or increased returns on equity to encourage utilities to expand and enhance their own transmission networks.
We can also promote transmission expansion to enhance electrification opportunities and avert the worst impacts of climate change. Broader electrification en route to “deep decarbonization” will require a massive uptick in electricity consumed. Vehicle electrification proceeds apace, with all major auto manufacturers offering electric options, and some international markets committing to reduce or even ban petroleum-fueled vehicles before 2050. And importantly, transmission expansion does not supplant growth in the energy efficiency and distributed generation arenas.
Opportunities abound, and the benefits are multi-faceted and multi-generational. Where transmission has been expanded, consumers and ratepayers have seen benefits that dwarf the costs of the investment. Those benefits include the expansion of renewable resources which have led to a dramatic decrease in electricity costs.
With infrastructure popular on both sides of the political aisle, now is a prime opportunity for Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate to work with the president to advance important infrastructure policy for which they all have stated support. Energy consumers should work with utilities, energy developers, and environmental entities to promote the importance of such an initiative to their elected representatives. If we can come together to promote the modernization and expansion of electric transmission as a key component of an infrastructure bill, we can quite literally invest in America’s future.