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Sparks

The White House Also Has Some Transmission News

As if one set of energy policy announcements wasn’t enough.

Power lines.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency’s power plant rules were not the only big energy policy announcement from the Biden administration Thursday. The White House also announced a bevy of initiatives and projects meant to bolster infrastructure throughout the country.

Transmission arguably sits at the absolute center of the Biden administration’s climate policy. Without investments to move new renewable power from where it’s sunny or windy but desolate and remote to where it’s still and cloudy but densely populated, the Inflation Reduction Act is unlikely to meet its emissions reduction potential. While the most important transmission policy changes will likely come from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission next month, and possibly permitting reform legislation under consideration in Congress, the White House and Department of Energy are doing what they can with tens of billions of dollars allotted in both the IRA and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and their power over environmental regulations.

One such pot of money is the Transmission Facilitation Program, which directs funds towards interregional transmission projects. The DOE announced Thursday that one such project, the Southwest Intertie Project-North, would get up to $331 million in funding. The almost-300 mile-long transmission line would connect wind projects in Idaho to the California electric grid. The project was conditionally approved by California regulators in December and would run from Midpoint, Idaho to Robinson Summit in Eastern Nevada, where it could connect to already operating lines that run to Las Vegas and then interconnect with California. The total costs are estimated to run to just over $1 billion.

“We’re building out transmission lines to get clean power from where it's generated to where it's needed,” Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm told reporters Wednesday. The project “will increase grid resilience, especially during wildfires, and it'll create over 300 high quality and union construction jobs,” Granholm said.

The other announcements had to do with great bugbear of the energy transition: permitting. Transmission projects can take decades from conception to completion, often featuring years-long reviews, stakeholders negotiations, and lawsuits. Interregional transmission — especially in the Western United States, where much of the country’s best wind and solar resources are (along with energy-hungry populations in California and the Southwest) — often takes place on and across public lands, thus ensuring plans must undergo the federal government’s full gamut of environmental review.

“Right now, it takes about four years, on average, to permit a new transmission project in the U.S., and in extreme cases it can take over a decade,” Granholm said.

To help speed that up, the DOE said it was establishing a new Coordinated Interagency Transmission Authorization and Permits program, which will facilitate consultation across all relevant government bodies, “create efficiencies, and establish a standard two-year timeline for federal transmission authorizations and permits.” This would establish the DOE as “the main point of contact” for transmission developers Granholm said. This constitutes “a huge improvement from the status quo,” she added, “because developers routinely have to navigate several independent permitting processes throughout the federal government.”

Also in the same announcement (yes, it was a big one), the DOE also said it was creating a “categorical exclusion” — essentially an exemption from much of the typically required environmental review — for upgrading existing transmission lines. While there’s no way to avoid building new transmission to connect new projects, existing lines could be become far more efficient, which would go a long way toward handling the expected steep rise in electricity demand.

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Matthew Zeitlin profile image

Matthew Zeitlin

Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine.

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