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Senator Welch: To aid the green energy transition, we need to modernize our grid infrastructure

May 12, 2024

UNITED STATES – APRIL 16: Federal Energy Regulatory Commission sign in Washington. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

While it’s true that some things get better with age, the United States’ aging transmission infrastructure is not one of them. Updated transmission infrastructure is crucial to reducing emissions and ensuring dependable electricity service. Congress has passed green energy laws to help make this update happen, but now it’s up to a little-known government commission to fully realize the benefits of our transformational climate laws. And they need to act before it’s too late. 

It would be an understatement to say our country’s existing transmission infrastructure—the energy cables, towers and transformers that move energy between a generation system and the final distribution and use—is behind the times. Mostly built in the 1950s and ’60s, most of America’s transmission infrastructure has reached or outlived its useful life and is in dire need of upgrades.  

Our outdated infrastructure is not capable of meeting the needs of our communities, especially in the coming years as more sectors move toward electrified energy as a primary power source.  

Recent legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)and the bipartisan infrastructure lawhave super-charged our clean energy transition. Since the IRA’s passage, over $421 billion has been invested in clean energy projects. But the electricity generated from those investments won’t be useful if we can’t connect it to consumers on the other end. 

Here are just a few reasons we need to upgrade our transmission infrastructure: 

The current transmission system is a major roadblock to meeting the Paris agreement goal to limit global warming to 1.5°C—a goal that will require us to cut nearly 60 percent of our global greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. If we don’t plan and quickly build this, we won’t be able to transition to renewable energy on the timeline that is necessary to stave off the worst effects of climate change. 

We’re not keeping up with the renewable energy economy, because we’re not able to get energy to where it needs to go. Right now, two-thirds of U.S. renewable energy potential comes from just 15 states in the middle of the country. But most of that energy is consumed on the coasts. In order to keep up with a renewable energy economy, we need to expand these grid systems by 60 percent by 2030 and triple system expansion by 2050. Better planned transmission can move power from generation to consumption more efficiently, while expanding capacity.  

Natural disasters and extreme weather are putting more pressure on the grid. During extreme heat or cold spells or floods, energy demand increases, driving prices up. Last year alone there were 28 extreme weather events in the United States that cost over $1 billion, from Vermont’s catastrophic floods to Hawai’i’s devastating fires. Upgrading our transmission system would make our energy grid more resilient to changing weather and keep prices down for consumers. 

Finally, upgrading our transmission infrastructure would save consumers money. For lower-income Americans in New England, winter energy bills can make up 27 percent of income. Increased transmission capacity and renewable energy deployment could lower these bills by improving access to a diverse mix of clean energy.  

For all these reasons and more, we need to upgrade and expand our transmission capacity. But current regulations make it difficult to build out the necessary infrastructure to do that.  

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), a lesser known but important federal government agency, could greatly improve the situation by quickly finalizing a strong transmission planning and cost allocation rule it has been working on and is expected to discuss at next week’s special meeting. 

A robust final rule should require transmission regions to plan buildout for the long-term future, with the consideration of our renewable energy transition goals. It should also create a system for allocating costs of transmission construction based on benefits ratepayers will receive from the new infrastructure. FERC should also have a plan to deal with conflicts in the cost allocation process. 

Revitalizing a clean energy transmission system is within our reach, but there are major obstacles to the buildout of well-connected transmission that serves both metropolitan and rural areas alike, from Boston to Brattleboro.

Failing to modernize our out-of-date grid infrastructure is the No. 1 threat to the green energy transition. FERC must act and finalize this rule so we can modernize our transmission and energy systems before it’s too late. 

Op-ed Written by Senator Peter Welch, junior senator of Vermont, and published on The Hill

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