We Need More Interregional Transmission Now

We need FERC to issue a proposed rule that sets the foundation for better interregional transmission to increase reliability and usher in a renewable energy future.

High voltage power lines and pylons against a cloud-filled blue sky

High voltage power lines in Chino, California


John Middelkoop

Just a few weeks into summer, the United States is undergoing its second round of blanketing heat waves in the South and devastating floods throughout the Northeast. Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of weather events that destabilize entire regions.

When these events occur, grid reliability can become a matter of life-and-death. With so many parts of our country at risk of overlapping extreme weather events, our ability to keep the lights on, heaters and air conditioners running, and our hopes of reducing greenhouse gas emissions hinge on the construction of new power lines. And in the race to build transmission, interregional lines that can carry large amounts of electricity over long distances are king. 

But right now, the process of planning for and building them simply takes too long. Since 2014, North America has built just 7 gigawatts (GW) of large-scale interregional transmission, compared with 44 GW in Europe and 260 GW in China. Congress and federal regulators are weighing measures that would reform transmission planning and encourage power line construction, yet meaningful regulatory or legislative action remains elusive. 

Last year, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory projected that for the United States to achieve 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, the amount of interregional transmission must double or triple. Researchers at Princeton University have also warned that the rate of transmission construction must double or 80 percent of the potential emissions reductions projected by the Inflation Reduction Act by 2030 will be lost. 

Congress took a stab at confronting this challenge during recent negotiations over raising the federal debt ceiling, but it came up short. Transmission advocates pushed to include legislation known as the BIG WIRES Act in the debt ceiling compromise. The bill would require transmission planning regions to be able to transfer at least 30 percent of their peak demand to each other, effectively requiring them to build new interregional lines. 

Unfortunately, the BIG WIRES Act was dropped from the debt ceiling deal, and instead, Congress ordered up a study of transfer capability between regions. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), whose mission is to enhance grid reliability and security, has 18 months to deliver the study to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which will ultimately issue recommendations to Congress, a process that could take as long as two years. 

This study is largely unnecessary. Many studies already exist about the insufficient amounts of transfer capacity between regions, including the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) draft Needs Study that will be finalized this summer. In addition, eight states across the Northeast and New England asked the DOE to lead an effort to increase connectivity between regions that would include offshore wind, a growing source of clean energy in the Atlantic Ocean. We don’t need a two-year study to tell us what we already know or to give us a road map we already possess. 

Meanwhile, FERC is weighing measures to reform how we plan and build transmission, an effort NRDC strongly supports. In December, FERC held a workshop on how to establish minimum requirements for interregional transfer capability for grid operators, a move that, like the BIG WIRES Act, would lead to new links with neighboring regions. 

“Expanded interregional transmission could have greatly reduced, if not eliminated, the reliability risks during [recent extreme weather events], providing a lifeline to those for whom reliable power is a matter of life-and-death,” NRDC and other public interest groups said in comments to FERC. 

These comments also made the following points: 

  • A minimum interregional transfer capability requirement is valuable and consistent with FERC’s duty to ensure reliability. 
  • This requirement should be based on how transmission improves reliability and efficiency, reducing the need for more power generation. 
  • Ratepayers are better served by the commission setting a baseline standard that gets close to the right answer for all regions instead of spending years of lawyers’ and technical consultants’ time debating the intractable uncertainties inherent to setting a specific requirement for each region. 
  • Given the broad benefits of transmission, the cost to meet an interregional requirement should be broadly allocated among states that would benefit from it. 

Unfortunately, FERC has yet to initiate a rulemaking on interregional transfer capability, a required step before it can mandate changes. 

NRDC and other public interest groups have outlined ways to build transmission quickly without compromising bedrock environmental or social justice safeguards, using existing authorities and rules. FERC should not wait for NERC to finalize its study and should issue a proposed rule now that sets a minimum interregional transfer requirement and establishes the rules for how to meet this requirement. Recent weather events provide compelling evidence that there is no time to waste. 

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