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Here Come the Power Lines

Don’t jinx it, but America is quietly making progress on one of the biggest challenges to the renewable energy rollout.

An American flag and power lines.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

New England is about to get a big infusion of carbon-free energy. On Thursday, a Maine jury ruled that a 145-mile power line connecting hydroelectric dams in Canada with the New England grid via western Maine could continue construction. The poles and wires are set to deliver enough clean electricity to power more than a million homes. They will lower costs for consumers while also cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 3.6 million metric tons per year.

It’s the latest in a string of victories for transmission projects that will pave the way for thousands of megawatts of clean energy to come online over the next decade. Quietly over the past few months, the U.S. has begun to overcome one of the central hurdles to the renewables rollout.

Climate-concerned states like Massachusetts and California that have been trying to cut emissions from their electricity grids have been stymied by literal gridlock. All over the country, the electric grid is jammed up, leaving hundreds of new wind, solar, and battery projects waiting in a symbolic line called the “interconnection queue” to find out what upgrades need to be made to the grid before they're able to connect.

But there's another, related problem: Renewable energy projects aren’t getting built because there are no transmission lines capable of bringing the vast wind and solar energy resources found in rural areas to major population centers.

It hasn’t been for lack of trying. But transmission projects end up in limbo for years due to long environmental review processes, interstate feuds, and community or landowner opposition. Over the last decade, the country’s transmission system expanded by about 1% per year. In order to achieve the full potential emission reductions made possible by clean energy subsidies in the Inflation Reduction Act, that pace will have to more than double to 2.3%, according to Princeton University’s Zero Lab.

The Maine power line, called the New England Clean Energy Connect, has been in progress since 2017. But it was put in jeopardy in late 2021 when Maine voters approved a referendum to halt construction of the line. Mainers were concerned about the environmental and tourism impacts of clearing a path for the power line through the state's famous North Woods. They mistrusted the developer, Central Maine Power, which had recently been accused of overcharging customers. The campaign against the project was also bolstered by millions of dollars from a rival utility company, NextEra.

This was all bad news for Massachusetts, which was under contract to receive the bulk of the power line’s capacity, and was counting on the project to achieve its climate goals. According to the Commonwealth’s Clean Energy and Climate Plan, the transmission line from Canada would “be a significant least-cost clean energy resource for the region largely because it complements and balances offshore wind generation, reducing energy costs for the entire region.” To get the same amount of energy from solar panels, the state would require more than 30,000 acres of land, the plan says.

Though Maine could appeal this week’s decision, for now the project is legally allowed to proceed. And it’s actually one of a bunch of new transmission lines that are on the way,

Just last week, the Bureau of Land Management issued the final approval for a long-beleaguered project called the TransWest Express, a 732-mile string of wires and towers that will deliver power from vast, new wind farms in Wyoming to California and throughout the Southwest. The agency began reviewing the project in 2008.

In January, senior White House officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris, celebrated the groundbreaking of another line called the Ten West Link that has been under development since 2015. Once built, the 125-mile, 3,200-megawatt project connecting Arizona to southern California is expected to enable new renewable energy projects across the region by opening up more room on the grid.

These announcements follow another transmission milestone last November, when construction started on the Champlain Hudson Power Express. The 339-mile power line will bring Canadian hydropower to New York City, powering more than a million homes and helping the state achieve its goal of having a zero-emissions grid by 2040.

And there’s more to come. Later this year, Missouri and Kansas could issue the final approvals for a project a decade in the making — the Grain Belt Express — which will deliver wind and solar power throughout the Midwest.

While all of these projects will go a long way toward building a clean energy future, they’ve also all been a long time coming. There’s no question the U.S. will need to reform the way transmission lines are planned and permitted in order to realize the emissions cuts needed to tackle climate change.

One of the biggest hurdles is figuring out who should pay for these projects, a problem that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates interstate energy infrastructure, is trying to resolve. If Congress can ever reach a deal to ease the permitting process for big infrastructure projects, that too would help. And there’s another change that some advocates feel is essential. Environmentalists, long allergic to big infrastructure projects, must learn to accept when their benefits outweigh their costs.

As a recent cover story in The Economist with the headline, “Hug pylons, not trees,” put it, “The sagging wires held aloft by charmless, skeletal pylons … are for the most part truly unlovely. But loved they must be.”

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    Emily Pontecorvo

    Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal. Read More

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