Given the need to greatly increase U.S. transmission capacity, a recent report identifying 36 high-capacity projects at or close to shovel-ready status could sound like good news. Unfortunately, the study outlines just how difficult it is for these projects—especially those shipping power across one or more state lines—to get started. This comes just as the federal agency charged with ensuring the nation’s power reliability has identified multiple risks now aggravated by inadequate transmission capacity.
The report, “Ready-To-Go Transmission Projects 2023,” was sponsored by Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, a nonprofit transmission advocacy group, and was authored by the transmission-focused consulting firm Grid Strategies LLC. It updates a similar 2021 study that found 22 projects at a similar stage of readiness. “Ready-to-go” means projects that have received or are close to getting all necessary federal and state permits and those pursuing cost recovery, cost allocation or contracts from electricity generators to carry power to distant markets.
Ten of the projects from the 2021 report have advanced to construction, but many are low-hanging fruit because they’re directly linking a generation project to the grid, so costs will be paid for by generators using the lines or by a state’s ratepayers, involving only a single state’s regulatory system.
Larger projects designed to move bulk power across two or more states are much harder to get approved. States being crossed might not benefit from the power being shipped across their borders, so regulators may be less inclined to step in when landowners balk at selling rights-of-way to line developers. This can lead to court and regulatory battles that can push timelines out a decade or more.
The report’s authors identify a number of factors motivating the companies behind the increase in proposed transmission, including significant load growth, increased U.S. manufacturing, data center demand (especially as computing-intensive artificial intelligence efforts ramp up), customer demand for clean energy and increasingly favorable economics for renewable energy.
Lines across the country
The last two items are especially strong drivers for the longest distance lines, often intended to transport wind-generated electricity eastward from the resource-rich Midwest and prairie states. That’s the case for the Grain Belt Express, first proposed in 2011 as one of several ambitious high-voltage direct current (HVDC) projects designed by Dallas-based Clean Line Energy Partners. Court battles wore out the company’s coffers, and in 2018, Clean Line sold their interest to Chicago-based Invenergy. The line would bring 5,000 megawatts of wind power from southwest Kansas across Missouri and Illinois to connect with customers in Indiana and eastward.
Initially, Missouri farmers held up construction, objecting to possible eminent domain takings for the line’s right-of-way. Those hurdles were finally crossed this past March, but in August, Illinois landowner groups succeeded in winning a stay of project construction. Invenergy has split construction into two phases, with the Illinois portion as a second part. Construction of the now $7 billion line is currently scheduled to start in late 2024.
The $2.5 billion SOO Green Line, proposed to run from Mason City, Iowa, to Chicago’s outer suburbs, got around potential landowner protests with a plan to run its 525-kilovolt HVDC line underground, along existing railway rights-of-way. However, it’s being challenged by managers of the PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization (RTO). The line offers the advantage of creating a new tie between PJM and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which manages transmission from Louisiana up through the middle of Canada. This would help diversify the RTO’s power supply, but PJM has forced a delay as a fight plays out over the impact the added power would have on its operations.
Such interties are just what a recent report from the North American Reliability Corporation and the Electric Reliability Organization (ERO) says we need more of. The August 2023 ERO Reliability Risk Priorities Report identifies five areas of risk facing the North American grid. Increasing the number of regional interconnections, such as the one proposed by the SOO Green Line, could help address at least two of these: grid transformation and resilience to extreme events.
The report’s authors note the need for increased flexibility for energy planners as grid operations become more dynamic with a greater dependence on renewable energy sources. They see significant benefit in enhancing interregional transmission and cooperation to potentially provide added resources when one region is experiencing unique capacity shortfalls.
Similarly, the report highlights ways increased interconnections could help build resilience into regional transmission systems that could provide needed capacity in severe weather events. In 2021, Winter Storm Uri showed the dangers of closed transmission borders as Texas generators shut down in the extreme cold and the state’s lack of interregional transmission ties meant homes went dark just as the weather reached its worst.
stock.adobe.com / Igor / Svitlana Belinska