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Democrats Pursue a Plan B on Power Lines

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to rewrite transmission rules, signaling a new front in the war over permitting reform.

Chuck Schumer and President Biden.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has asked the federal government’s energy regulator to write aggressive new rules that would let America build more long-distance power lines, a move that would accomplish one of Democrats’ most important climate goals.

In a letter sent on Thursday, Schumer asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a bipartisan panel known as FERC, to “strengthen and finalize” rules governing where power lines can be built and who will pay for them. Those rules will be essential to “[delivering] reliable, affordable, and clean power to Americans,” Schumer wrote.

The letter, which has not been previously reported, suggests that Democrats are tiring of bipartisan negotiations over reforming the country’s environmental-permitting laws and will now seek agency action to secure most of their climate goals.

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  • The effort to reform how and where America builds new power lines is one of Democrats’ biggest priorities for any permitting-reform bill — and one of the biggest sticking points for Republicans. Long-distance transmission is essential to increasing the power grid’s share of wind and solar power, because they allow for clean electricity to be moved from the windiest, sunniest parts of the country to power-hungry cities and towns.

    Building more transmission may also be essential to accomplishing the goals of President Joe Biden’s signature climate law. If America doesn’t double how quickly it builds new power lines, then 80% of the carbon reductions from that law, the Inflation Reduction Act, might be lost, according to a research team at Princeton University.

    While Democrats want transmission reform to appear in any permitting bill, Republicans have yet to name specific transmission policies that they would support in a compromise. At the same time, the GOP has insisted on changing America’s bedrock environmental statutes — the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act — to benefit fossil fuels projects.

    The letter suggests that Schumer believes this is too high a price. Democrats do not need new legislation to hit their most pressing transmission goals, his letter implies, but can instead implement most of their agenda through FERC, which is scheduled to get a Democratic majority at the beginning of next year.

    The letter is also clearly meant to establish Schumer’s leverage in ongoing permitting talks.

    Experts say that transmission construction is held back for two reasons. First, no rules govern how utilities, companies, and consumers should split costs for new transmission once it’s built. Even if a private developer single-handedly builds a new power line to connect two far-flung areas, electricity markets have no rules about how that developer can recoup their costs.

    Second, power lines face an especially onerous permitting process. A new transmission project must generally seek approval from every city, county, and state that it passes through. A new natural-gas pipeline, by comparison, only needs to be approved by FERC.

    While the federal government has begun to fix the permitting problem, the cost-allocation problem remains totally unsolved.

    The bipartisan infrastructure law, which passed in 2021, gave FERC a “backstop” permitting authority, which means that if a local government blocks a proposed transmission line for more than a year, then FERC can step in and approve it.

    FERC is now working on a draft version of the rules governing how it would handle that process. But in the letter, Schumer exhorts the agency to move faster and take a more comprehensive approach.

    First, he writes, any FERC rule about transmission must say how project developers and utilities should split up the cost of a new power line. The agency must also define the types of benefits that communities can expect from a new transmission line, which should make it easier to calculate who should pay for what.

    This cost-allocation rule must also set up a process to fix another potential problem: what happens if states disagree among themselves on how to divide up costs. “Absent such a path … there will be a significant risk of either projects being stalled due to deadlock, or that states that benefit from a transmission line are incentivized to act as free riders and avoid any costs,” Schumer writes.

    Second, Schumer wants FERC to require utilities and state regulators to study multiple scenarios for the future of the electricity grid in order to decide where new transmission lines might be needed. These planning sessions must include at least one scenario in which renewables make up a large share of the grid. And grid planners must also study whether existing power lines — or other energy-transportation technology — can be repurposed to support the grid of the future, Schumer said.

    These scenarios should also include stress tests looking at especially hot or cold days, when the power grid will be most under demand and transmission is the most important, Schumer said. Roughly half of the economic value of electricity transmission comes from how the grid performs during just 5 to 10% of the hours in a year, according to a recent study from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

    Right now, most grid planners do not generally take the changing power mix — including known power-plant retirements — into account when studying the need for new transmission projects, Rob Gramlich, the president of Grid Strategies, an electricity research and consulting firm, told me.

    Finally, Schumer instructs FERC that it must quickly publish rules governing its new “backstop” ability to step in and approve new transmission lines. And it must set up an informal process so that developers can begin working with FERC even before the one-year deadline on state and local approval kicks in.

    “I think FERC clearly has the authority to do what Senator Schumer is requesting, and has given appropriate notice in its proposal to do probably all of them,” Gramlich said.

    Schumer’s requests matter because FERC will soon get its first Democratic majority in years. FERC is governed by a bipartisan, five-person commission; no more than three of its commissioners, who are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, can come from the same party.

    But so far, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has blocked Biden’s nominees to FERC, deadlocking FERC with two Democratic commissioners and two Republican commissioners. That deadlock will end in early January 2024, when the Republican James Danly will step down, giving the commission’s two Democrats a working majority.

    In essence, Schumer is telling those two Democrats that they should start planning for that majority now. He is also putting Republicans on notice that Democrats do not need legislation to accomplish their permitting goals.

    Bipartisan talks over a permitting bill are ongoing. Last week, Representative Garret Graves, a House Republican negotiator on the package, said that he hoped to focus on “how to redesign the grid and transmission in a way that reflects new technologies that are out there.” He did not name a specific transmission policy that Republicans support.

    Earlier this year, Biden and House Republicans reached a deal over government spending that also changed some permitting laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act. But that law did not make it any easier to build new power lines.

    Read more on FERC:

    The Republican Fed Up With Free Markets in Electricity

    This article was updated on Monday, July 24, at 12:55 PM ET.


    Robinson Meyer

    Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology. Read More

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