The Biden administration and FERC made moves in recent weeks to revamp the nation’s electricity transmission system, taking steps toward achieving a carbon-free energy grid by 2035 while addressing the impending infrastructure issues.

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During the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s third joint federal-state electric transmission task force, the five commissioners underscored that there is a great deal of transmission needs across the nation’s regional grids. 

Projects with more than 1 TW, or one trillion watts, of generator capacity, in addition to 420 GW of storage, are seeking connection to the grid. There is an ever-expanding backlog for interconnection projects. However,  23% requesting interconnection from 2000 to 2016 reached commercial operations, according to FERC. 

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“The urgency of this problem is taking the same upward trajectory as shown on a natural gas price chart,” said Arkansas Public Service Commission Chairman Ted Thomas. “This urgency is up about 30%” over the past month or so. “It is urgent that consumers have alternatives to natural gas generation at these price levels.”

Some of the causes for the backlogs, according to FERC Commissioner Willie Phillips, are “the changing resource mix – more renewables, and other technologies, including hybrid and offshore wind. As of the end of 2021, over 1,300 GW of renewable, storage, and hybrid resources were waiting in interconnection queues.” 

The California Independent Systems Operator (CAISO), for example, noted that the 605 projects, totaling more than 236 GW, that are seeking to interconnect exceed the current needs of the state’s grid “by an order of magnitude.”

Additionally, the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) has “2,500 projects under study, and about half of them have been in the queue since at least 2001,” said PSC Chairman Jason Stanek.

Interconnection studies and restudies are causing “many transmission providers” to be “overloaded,” unable to meet their deadlines, Phillips said. Studies, meanwhile, take “four or five years in some cases.

Interconnection queues have also been expanded because of a lack of “qualified engineers available to do the required interconnection studies,” said Phillips. “Another problem is that the queues contain many speculative projects. As noted, less than 25% of projects ever reach commercial operation.” 

The Long Haul

The root of the problem, according to Kansas Corporation Commission Chair Andrew French, is the lack of “long-range planning” over the last decade to identify demand for renewable resources and “create interconnection capacity as they were coming along.”

In late April, FERC released a notice of proposed rulemaking (NOPR) that would require transmission providers to conduct sufficiently long-term planning to estimate transmission needs.

The New York Independent System Operator (NYISO) said it proposed reforms last November. Some of NYISO’s proposals include reforms to accommodate future interconnection “beyond the minimum upgrades required for reliable interconnection.” It also suggested planning scenarios that would include assumptions to generator availability and system resiliency. 

Some aspects of NYISO’s initial comments to FERC were included in the most recent NOPR. 

A spokesperson for PJM Interconnection LLC, a regional transmission organization (RTO) serving most of the Mid-Atlantic states, told NGI it has in its “interconnection queue approximately 225,000 MW of projects.” Nearly all, or 95%, consist of renewables, storage or hybrid – generation that typically leverages a renewable component with a nonrenewable resource.

PJM members in late April endorsed speeding up generation interconnection requests. The plan could go into effect in late 2022 or early 2023. 

The Norristown, PA-based RTO has been reviewing future transmission needs in a series of white papers that have yet to be publicly released. A PJM spokesperson told NGI that one of the main findings is that “new PJM generation is being located within 100 miles of load centers, so unlike some areas of the country that will require major transmission projects to accommodate renewable resources, PJM will be well served by existing infrastructure.” It also would provide “advanced technology” to increase efficiency, “along with new infrastructure that will be required.” 

PJM released its long-term Regional Planning Perspective on Tuesday. The RTO noted it expects to integrate more than 100,000 MW of onshore and offshore wind, solar and storage within the next 15 years. 

ITC Holdings Corp., which operates transmission infrastructure in seven Midwest states, has said it needs to connect its systems to renewable energy. 

“Without an updated transmission system, we cannot add one more megawatt of power generation under the constraints we have now,” an ITC spokesperson told NGI. “In order to accommodate the demand for more renewable energy sources, the U.S. will need to invest and update the transmission system. 

“The need for transmission investment, however, goes beyond renewable energy and decarbonization. The U.S. electric grid is aging. About 70% of the electricity grid’s transmission lines and power transformers are at least 25 years old.” 

Further, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) has a “backlog of more than 73 GW of renewable energy in its queue,” according to the ITC spokesperson. The Southwest Power Pool has a backlog of more than 100 GW in its queue. 

MISO released long-term transmission expansion plans in March. 

Elsewhere in the country, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), while aiming to expand its solar composition to 10,000 MW by 2035, is investing more than $2 billion over the next five years to build up its transmission system to support the oncoming solar generation.

How Can Grid Expand?

In late April, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced a request for information (RFI) for a $2.3 billion grant program to bolster the U.S. grid against extreme weather and to modernize the system. 

The grant program, enabled through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s Building a Better Grid Initiative, would mainly focus on upkeep and weatherization for power lines and utility poles. Applicants could also bid to integrate distributed energy sources such as microgrids and storage. 

“There is no question that a modernized grid is the linchpin to President Biden’s goal of a nation powered by reliable, renewable clean energy,” said DOE Secretary Jennifer Granholm.

The current grant program adds on to the DOE’s growing list of federal financing tools. These include $2.5 billion for the Transmission Facilitation Program, $3 billion to expand the Smart Grid Investment Grant Program, and more than $10 billion in grants for states, tribes and utilities to bolster grid resilience.