Department of Energy aims to speed up permitting of power lines

The Biden administration on Thursday finalized rules aimed at speeding up federal permits for major power lines as part of a broader push to expand the U.S. power grid.

Administration officials say plans to combat climate change will be derailed if the country fails to quickly add large-scale power grid capacity to increase capacity for wind and solar power and improve resilience to extreme weather events. There are growing concerns that this may be the case. The pace of high-voltage power line construction has slowed sharply since 2013, and new lines can take more than a decade to build due to tolerated delays and local opposition.

The Department of Energy is using its limited resources to spend about $20 billion to upgrade the power grid and streamline the approval of new transmission lines. But experts say rapid and large-scale grid expansion may ultimately be up to Congress.

Under the rules announced Thursday, the Department of Energy will take over as the lead agency The agency will be responsible for conducting federal environmental reviews of certain interstate power lines, with the goal of issuing the necessary permits within two years. Currently, the federal approval process can take more than four years and often involves multiple agencies conducting their own reviews.

“As we all know, we need to build new transmission projects faster,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said. The new reforms are “a significant improvement over the current situation, where developers must routinely navigate multiple independent permitting processes across the federal government.”

The permit changes only affect lines that require federal review, such as lines that cross federally owned land.projects like this 26% of total transmission line miles To qualify, developers must create plans for public availability fairly early in the process.

Experts said the change could have significant implications for power lines in the West, where the federal government owns nearly half the land and permitting can be difficult. It took him 17 years as a developer to get approval for one major product. known as Sanjiawas designed to connect a giant wind farm in New Mexico to homes and businesses in Arizona and California.

“Federal permits aren’t the only thing stopping the spread, but if we can shave off even one year of federal permitting, and reduce the number of projects that take more than 10 years, that’s a huge win,” Secretary Megan said. Gibson said. Attorney at Niskanen Center. took place recently two studies Regarding Federal Transmission Permits.

Although the rule does not affect state environmental reviews, it could sometimes pose an additional hurdle for power transmission developers who face complaints and lawsuits over aesthetic and ecological damage. be.

Other changes to grid policy may also be forthcoming.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which will oversee the electricity market, will be established in May Finalize important rules This would encourage utilities and grid operators to make longer-term transmission plans, which is relatively rare today. Depending on how the rules are written, they could also help resolve disputes between states over who should pay for expensive new transmission lines, the biggest bottleneck for many projects.

“I call this rule the greatest energy policy in this country,” said Rob Gramlich, president of the consulting group Grid Strategies. “Determining who should pay for the transmission has always been the most difficult part.”

Separately, the Department of Energy is trying to help power companies squeeze more capacity from the existing grid. This includes “grid-strengthening technologies” such as sensors that allow energy companies to send more power without overloading existing power lines and advanced controls that allow operators to reduce grid congestion. “It is included. It also includes replacing existing lines with advanced conductors, which could potentially double the capacity of existing lines.energy department Currently providing funding of $3.9 billion It may lead to these and other solutions.

Many of these technologies could be deployed in just a few years, agency officials said. Recent reports on grid modernizationbuying time for developers to build larger power lines that will be needed in the future.

Congress also requires federal regulators Power to override objections from states This is a controversial move regarding which specific transmission lines are deemed to be in the national interest. The Biden administration has not yet exercised this authority, but it is working to identify potentially eligible sites.

“We’ve been trying to maximize every inch of what we can do right now,” said Maria Robinson, director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Grid Implementation.

Still, experts say there is only so much the administration can do to expand the grid without support from Congress. Until now, lawmakers have struggled to agree on how to reform the system.

Democrats in the House and Senate have proposed a variety of bills, including: Require stronger grid connectivity between regions or Put more permitting power in the hands of federal regulators. But some utility companies and Republicans have criticized the proposals, saying they take control away from states.

Elsewhere, energy companies are asking Congress to enact permitting reforms that would create stricter deadlines for challenges and lawsuits from opponents of new projects. But environmentalists warn that such changes could also benefit fossil fuel projects such as pipelines.

If he could “wave a magic wand,” David Crane, the Energy Department’s undersecretary for infrastructure, said at a recent conference in New York, he would ask Congress to authorize reforms to promote renewable energy and transmission projects. said.

“I would like to say to those on the left who are against allowing reform, because they think it will lead to the proliferation of even more unmitigated fossil fuel-fired infrastructure. “I think it’s very clear from my standpoint that what’s holding us back is new zero-carbon energy sources,” he said.

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