FERC must make transmission planning work

The electricity system is undergoing a major transformation, driven by consumer preferences for low-carbon electricity, public clean energy policies, and significant declines in the cost of renewable energy generation. It also faces ever-increasing challenges posed by extreme weather events. To meet these needs, we need a reliable, resilient and affordable transmission system. But our power grid is stuck in the previous century. It is not hyperbole to suggest that if we do not facilitate access to the grid of cost-effective and reliable renewable energy, future grid outages caused by extreme weather conditions are likely to lead to results that no one is ready to accept.

The good news is that we have the tools we need to develop a modern transmission grid that can usher in the future of clean energy and withstand current and future extreme weather caused by climate change. It’s up to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to implement new rules that ensure we get the modern, clean, and reliable transmission system we deserve.

In comments submitted today, a coalition of public interest organizations, including the Sustainable FERC Project and the NRDC, say FERC is moving in the right direction but needs to go further. This follows comments we submitted last year (here and here) that recommended specific actions FERC should take to improve the transmission planning process.

Transportation planning has failed to anticipate future needs, primarily the need to accommodate a generational shift towards renewable energy resources. Without the ability to move large amounts of clean energy from remote areas where it is generated to major cities and towns – and in some cases to different transmission regions of the country – keeping the lights on and the air conditioners running will become more and more difficult.

There is no shortage of renewable energy ready to supply electricity that can reduce consumer costs and significantly improve grid reliability. Renewable resources account for more than 90% of interconnection demands in the mid-Atlantic, 83% in the Midwest, and 95% in the Northeast. Currently, there is nearly 1 terawatt of renewable energy waiting to be interconnected with the grid, which is enough to power more than 200 million homes per year. Getting even a fraction of that energy onto the grid faster would help ensure reliability and resiliency and lower costs for consumers by giving them access to low-cost energy sources.

Yet the transition to a decarbonized electricity sector remains blocked by fragmented transmission planning rules, mostly producing local upgrades to rebuild our current grid instead of the regional and interregional grid we need. This results in inefficient transmission investment decisions and unnecessary and redundant costs for consumers.

FERC should require that transmission projects undergo a rigorous regional planning process and establish minimum requirements that all regions must use to plan for expected future generation. Such reforms would help meet growing consumer demand for clean energy resources such as wind and solar, ensure the grid is resilient to increasingly frequent extreme weather conditions, and ensure compliance with state policies and clean energy utilities.

To ensure the construction of these regional transmission lines, the NRDC and other public interest groups are calling on FERC to:

  • Make long-term regional planning a mandatory practice for transportation providers in all regions.
  • Use “scenario planning” to plan for a future that includes increased demand for electricity for things like electric vehicles, while also preparing for extreme weather conditions.
  • Require the use of specific factors in scenario planning, such as national clean energy laws and policies, and require utilities to plan transmission to comply with those laws and policies.
  • Plan handover globally and by portfolio rather than project by project.
  • Establish a minimum set of benefits that must be assessed as part of any transmission planning.
  • Require that the scenarios and data sources developed and used for this long-range planning effort be carried forward for use in each region’s generation interconnection, extreme weather planning and vulnerability assessments, and in inter-regional transportation planning.

FERC is taking steps to ensure we get the cleanest, most reliable network possible, and not a moment too soon. Failures in transmission planning go back decades, as do the inadequacy of rules based on voluntary action. It’s time to do the work.

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