NCSL Podcasts

States and the Deployment of New Electric Transmission Lines | OAS Episode 204

Episode Summary

Part of modernizing the nation’s electric grid involves adding long-distance transmission lines. On this episode, we talk with Melissa Birchard, a senior adviser at the U.S. Department of Energy, who explained the need for new transmission lines to bring renewable energy from remote areas of the country to the cities and towns where it’s needed.

Episode Notes

A key part of modernizing the nation’s electric grid involves adding long-distance transmission lines, the power lines that carry electricity over hundreds of miles. 

To better understand this critical part of the electrical infrastructure, we sat down with Melissa Birchard, a senior adviser in the Grid Deployment Office of the U.S. Department of Energy. The office was created in 2022 to work on a variety of issues related to the electrical grid and, in particular, integrating power from new renewable energy projects.

Melissa talked about some of the issues involved particularly in the planning and siting of transmission lines. She explained the need for new transmission lines to bring renewable energy from remote areas of the country to the cities and towns where it’s needed. 

Our other guest is Alex McWard from NCSL, who tracks legislation related to the state role in transmission line planning and siting. He discussed the role of state legislatures in transmission projects and in working with other states on regional projects.



Episode Transcription

Ed:     Hello and welcome to “Our American States,” a podcast from the National Conference of State Legislatures. I’m your host Ed Smith. 


MB:   Over the past year, the great deployment office has committed over 7 billion dollars in funding for states, tribes and local governments as well as private industry to advance a more affordable, reliable and resilient electric grids. 


Ed:     That was Melissa Burchard a senior advisor is the Grid Deployment Office of the U.S. Department Energy and my guest on the program. The office was created in 2022 to work on a variety of issues related to the electrical grid and in particular integrating power from new renewable energy projects. A key part of modernizing the grid involves adding long distance transmission lines the power lines that carry electricity over hundreds of miles. Melissa talked about the issues involved particularly in the planning and siting of transmission lines. She explained the need for new transmission lines to bring renewal energy from remote areas in the country to the cities and towns where it is needed. 


           My second guest is Alex McWard from NCSL who tracks legislation related to the state role in transmission line planning and siting. He discussed the role of state legislatures in transmission projects and in working with other states on regional projects. Here is our discussion starting with Melissa. Melissa, welcome to the podcast.


MB:   Thank you so much for having me here today.


Ed:     So, Melissa, to start I wonder if you could tell our listeners a little bit about the Grid Deployment Office at the U.S. Department of Energy and the role that office plays.


MB:   Absolutely. Thank you for asking. The Grid Deployment Office or GDO was established in 2022 as a new office in the Department of Energy that is dedicated to ensuring access to clean, affordable electricity for all Americans. GDO has $26 billion in funding to support investments in critical generation facilities, the development of transmission lines and upgrades to existing distribution and transmission systems to support grid modernization across the nation. Over the past year, the Grid Deployment Office has committed over $7 billion in funding for states, tribes and local governments as well as private industry to advance a more affordable, reliable and resilient electric grids. We have an additional $5 billion right now currently available across a number of programs as well as funding opportunities. Within the GDO, we have three main divisions. I am personally housed in the transmission division. And in the transmission division we have a $2.5 billion program called the transmission facilitation program, a $760 million program that supports state and local permitting and siting efforts and a number of other programs focused on transmission. 


           Then we have the grid modernization division also within GDO. They are our close partner and they are responsible for the GRIP program or Grid Resilience and Innovation Program, as well as the state and tribal formula grants program among other efforts focused both on the transmission system and the distribution system. 


           And then finally we have our third division which is the generation credits division and that division supports both nuclear and hydro electric facilities among other initiatives.


Ed:     Let me ask you now about the current state of energy transmission in the U.S. and why there is a growing need for expansion of transmission now.


MB:   Yeah, so first off let me just take a step back and clarify what exactly it is that we are focused on today. The electric transmission grid is like the high-speed long-distance highway that transports electricity over hundreds of miles say from a rural windfarm to a town or city. Once the electricity reaches that town or city, it is transferred to the local distribution grid where your local electric utility will deliver it to your home. And so, what we are talking about today is just that portion of the grid that is the long-distance highway. That transmission grid is in need of major investments. Our Grid Deployment Office just completed a national transmission needs study that takes a look at the nation’s transmission grid and assesses the entire need for new transmission across the country. Now what we found is that improving and expanding that transmission grid nationwide is critical to meeting our clean energy goals as well as ensuring that customers across the country have access to reliable, affordable power when and where they need it. That study, the needs study that we recently completed, estimates that by 2035 we need to more than double the existing regional transmission system and we need to expand the intraregional transmission system by more than 400%. 


           There are a few different drivers for this need for new transmission. One of the drivers is the increasing demand for electricity to power our homes, our businesses and our vehicles. Another driver is the need to retire older and less efficient sources of power and replace them with new clean generation. Expanded transmission is also critical to keeping homes warm and lights on despite increasingly severe and widespread storm events that we are seeing.


Ed:     Well, it sounds like both a formidable task and urgent one as well. The timeline you are mentioning is really not that far away. Given that, how long does it take a project a long-distance transmission project to actually be completed starting from the planning and citing to the final construction?


           TM:  6:47


MB:   Well, you’ve hit on a big question and to be honest a major challenge there so traditionally it can take a long time to bring a new transmission online. In many cases, that has been in excess of 10 years. This is one of the reasons that my office the Great Deployment Office was created. We provide financial support, coordination and technical assistance to help accelerate those timelines. To be clear, there are many actors involved including critical state level actors. For example, state agencies like public utilities commissions are typically in charge of authorizing citing and permitting for the construction of new transmission lines. And because as you mentioned, transmission lines can be very long. They can run hundreds of miles. They may pass through several different states. They may also pass through federal lands which means they can face a wide range of different permitting requirements. One of the programs that the Grid Deployment Office is authorized to operate by the Inflation Reduction Act is actually a grant program that is designed in part to help inject funds into state tribal and local permitting processes to help move them along and to help snap in those processes. It also encourages collaboration and coordination across jurisdictions to make the whole process a little bit easier. This program is called the transmission citing and economic development grant’s program.


           Now in order to further slash timelines because as you mentioned this is urgent, our office is also launching a program that centrally coordinates federal coordinating such as the permits that a developer needs if they want to cross federal lands or an international border. This program is called the coordinated interagency transmission and permit approvals program. That is a mouthful so we also call it CITAP for short. Through the CITAP program, we serve as a coordinator between nine federal agencies in order to lead a more streamlined and consolidated review process and our goal is to complete all necessary federal authorizations and the environmental reviews that go along with those authorizations on a two-year timeline with no shortcuts and no impacts on the ultimate product and equality. But by streamlining these processes, we can substantially shorten the time that it takes to bring those new necessary transmission lines into service for customers across the country.


Ed:     Let me ask you about planning and siting and I think for those of us who are not in this world those probably seem like kind of the same thing, but as I understand it, they are a very different process and very distinct processes and I wonder if you can talk about those and what’s involved in each of them.


MB:   That’s right. So, planning transmission has traditionally been a very technical area that is focused primarily on maintaining the reliability of the electric grid so there are specific reliability standards and specific technical processes. But today the planning process is evolving to include more issues and more data like regional storm resilient decarbonization trends and long-term cost efficiencies so looking forward and thinking how can we reduce costs overall. The planning and operation of the transmission grid is regulated at the federal level. That’s by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. And may regions of the country have also established what’s called a regional transmission organization or RTO for short. There’s an acronym for everything right. And those RTOs do the work of planning and operating the transmission grid. Other regions including some in the south and the northwest don’t rely on RTOs. They might rely on utilities or other types of entities to plan and operate their transmission grid.


           Now because the considerations involved in planning are now evolving to include a broader scope of issues including some policy issues, state involvement is becoming increasingly important in the transmission planning process. That state involvement can take place in a number of ways. One way states can be involved is state lead resource planning efforts like utility integrated resource plans. They can also be involved for example through participating in one of those RTO planning processes that I just mentioned. 


           After those processes wrap up, the citing and permitting stage follows and that citing and permitting stage is generally lead by states, tribes and sometimes local permitting agencies. Federal agencies can also be involved with citing and permitting under certain specific circumstances such as I mentioned if the project is going to cross federal lands or if it’s going to cross an international border. 


Ed:     Now I know one challenge with any project that covers as many jurisdictions as a transmission line is that there is a whole lot of parties public and private who want to be heard. How do you think is the best way to accommodate that input as you suggest part of it is federal but there is also a great deal of it that would be at the state and local level.


           TM:  12:35


MB:   Large transmissions projects can and they be very complicated to develop. There are many people who need to be involved and we are really kind of revisioning some of those processes and those input processes right now. Currently with transmission planning, there are often formal stakeholder committees that provide input into those transmission planning processes at the RTOs and the other transmission planning entities. Those committees can include a rate payor or consumer advocate so they can include rate payor advocates, consumer advocates that represents the rate payors in the state. 


           However, the general public is typically not very well included in the transmission planning process because it takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of expertise to participate meaningfully in those traditional technical grid planning processes. The general public and impacted communities are traditionally more actively engaged at the citing and permitting stage and its at this stage where we see impacted communities receiving a whole bunch of information about the project. They may have the ability to participate directly as stakeholders in permitting proceedings where they can express support. They can ask questions. They can express concern about a particular project. 


           DOE is working to help evolve all of these processes to include even more opportunities for meaningful input by communities particularly impacted communities, environmental justice communities. This includes through our own federal coordination functions as well as through the transmission citing and economic development grants program that I mentioned which can provide funds for permitting agencies to enhance their stakeholder engagement and really do that aggressive outreach and engagement.


Ed:     Now you mentioned before that when it came to federal land that there was a process to try to make sure things got done in a reasonable amount of time. Are there other ways to expedite the process so that these given the urgent need for it that these projects can get to fruition sooner?


MB:   Yes. That’s a great question. So, I have mentioned a couple of different types of projects or programs that we and others have. I mentioned the transmission citing and economic development grants program that we have that does provide funds to help state permitting agencies accelerate review timelines and collaborate with neighboring jurisdictions so we welcome applications from state permitting agencies, local and tribal permitting agencies that are working to accelerate and strengthen their permitting processes. Through the same program actually, we also provide funds to communities where transmission lines are going to be built to help ensure that those communities have economic development opportunities and that the transmission development in their community is a win/win for them as well as for the rest of the country. We believe that by making transmission that kind of win for everybody, we can more efficiently upgrade the grid to meet today’s needs and really make it meet community needs as well as national needs.


           I also mentioned our federal coordination programs including that CITAP program where we are working really hard to expedite the federal side of things as you noted.


Ed:     Let me ask you. There were two big pieces of federal legislation in ’21 and ’22 that included energy elements – the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act. How do these two pieces of legislation affect transmission?


MB:   Well, these laws are really what promoted the creation of my office. They provide much of the funding for our programs. One of the things that we do is provide technical assistance and analysis to help support stronger and better transmission planning processes. They really drive toward that and we are implementing the objectives of those statutes to really drive forward with our funds as well as our expertise, regional collaboration and planning into regional transmission. We also publish major studies on a regular basis that provide information to help inform better planning processes. We publish, for example, the national transmission needs study, which is our triannual state of the grid report which we published just this fall. And that report collects in one place evidence showing that the entire nation needs updates to the electric grid as I mentioned as well as certain types of transmission lines like those larger, interregional transmission lines which are increasingly important to save money and avoid blackouts.


           We also publish the national transmission planning study which provides technical models and options to help consumers save money and transmission planners do an even better job than they are doing now. Those statues have really empowered our office and other offices ideally to make a difference with innovative programs to address transmission needs. 


Ed:     Yeah, I think it’s remarkable how many different areas of infrastructure were affected by those pieces of legislation. We’ve covered a lot of territory today, but as we get ready to wrap up, I wonder if there is anything else that you would like to share with the state legislators, legislative staff, the others interested in the state government in our audience regarding transmission projects?


MB:   Well, thank you for asking. Yes, so taking a quick step back our goal is to make sure that every American has access to clean and affordable electricity that is also reliable. As I mentioned, we have you know several different kinds of programs in the transmission area. We have our funding and financing programs. Our permitting programs and our planning programs. Our funding and financing programs include that transmission citing and economic development grants program that I mentioned, which has $760 million to really help states and other permitting entities kind of push things forward and get permitting processes moving. 


           We also have the $2.5 billion transmission facilitation program and the $10.5 billion grid resilience and innovation program. Through these funding programs, we are making actually the largest investment ever in the nation’s grid. I’ll step back and talk about the transmission facilitation program for a moment. This is an example of an innovative program recently established by law. This program involves a revolving fund that helps to overcome the financial hurdles facing the development of some of those large-scale transmission lines that we need to meet future meet. This October, we selected three major transmission lines that are located across the country to support through the transmission facilitation program. These are really major transmission lines. They include the crosstie project which connects which is going to connect Utah and Nevada in order to improve their reliability. There is the south line project that we are excited about that will pass through Arizona and New Mexico to expand access to clean generation. And thirdly, there is the twin states line which will provide a major connection between Canada and the United States.


           Then I mentioned the grid resilience and innovation program, that $10.5 billion program. It recently announced $3.5 billion in awards to 55 projects across 44 states. A couple of the high impact projects were able to support through the GRIP program include the joint targeted interconnection que transmission study process and portfolio, which is a mouthful so we often refer to that as the JTIQ and this is an interregional project that will substantially expand transmission capacity and will also help catalyze future investments in interregional transmission. 


           We also awarded support for an exciting transmission upgrade project. This upgrade project will be jointly carried out by the confederated tribes of Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon. Together with Portland General Electric or PGE. That is a groundbreaking partnership that will connect about 1800 megawatts of carbon free solar to consumers who need it. As I described earlier, we also have a slate of very innovative permitting programs and planning programs and all these programs are really designed to ensure that the energy transition is rapid, is reliable and is cost effective for everyone in the nation.


Ed:     Well Melissa, thank you so much for taking the time to walk us through this critical piece of our infrastructure and what the plans are in the next several years. Take care.


MB:   Take care.


Ed:     I’ll be back right after this short break with Alex McWard from NCSL.


           TM:  22:26


           Alex, welcome to the podcast.


AM:   Yeah. Thanks for having me, Ed. It’s a pleasure to be here.


Ed:     Great to have you. I wonder if you can first just take a minute to tell listeners the policy areas that you follow for NCSL.


AM:   Yeah of course. So, I’m a policy associate with the energy program here at NCSL so I cover issues related to renewable energy, electric transmission, energy efficiency and building electrification as well as the fit of tribal energy.


Ed:     So, we’ve been talking a little bit earlier with a DOE official about transmission planning and citing and I wonder if you can tell me what the role of state legislatures is when it comes to this issue.


AM:   There’s a lot of different parties involved in the transmission planning process from the local level all the way up to the federal government so it can be a bit difficult to identify the role that state legislators play. But in terms of planning and the need for transmission development right now, the process really starts with states enacting renewable portfolio standards or clean energy standards. These standards require a certain amount of electricity in the state to come from a renewable or clean energy sources by a specific year. And so, with these standards, we will start to see new sources of generation come online that are new and often isolated areas that need to be connected to the grid thus creating the need for new transmission development. And so, building off of this most states have enacted laws requiring the utilities to file integrated resource plans or similar planning documents. And these plans are utilities to review their demand and supply and ensure that their customer’s long term energy needs will be met in a cost-effective manner. They review a range of energy resource options including energy conservation, efficiency, generation and of course transmission and then identify where upgrades and development is necessary. And then finally state legislators’ area also responsible for establishing and allocating funding for energy regulatory entities within the state such as state public utility commissions. And these entities are then responsible for overseeing and permitting transmission projects. They base their policy on the statutory authority and guidance provided by legislators. 


Ed:     Tell us a little bit about what kinds of specific legislation we’ve seen from states like do you have some examples of states where they have taken action to try to facilitate this?


AM:   A couple of years ago Colorado and Nevada both passed significant transmission legislation that I think are good examples of how state legislatures can influence transmission planning. In Colorado a couple of years ago, they enacted Senate Bill 72 and this created a new entity within the state called the Colorado Electric Transmission Authority and this authority has been responsible for identifying and establishing transmission corridors within the state that are ideal for transmission development.


           Then on the other hand, Nevada the same year passed a bill requiring utilities to create a plan that outlines the development of a high voltage transmission line to increase the transmission capacity by at least 800 megawatts in the state by the end of the decade. And this need for increased transmission capacity is to support the states transition to a clean energy economy. Another big thing that both of these bills from Colorado and Nevada did was require transmission providers in each state to join a regional transmission organization or RTO by 2030. And so, currently, about two-thirds of the grid is serviced by RTOs which are largely responsible for identifying transmission and then planning the development necessary to meet these needs. However, certain regions of the country such as the Southeast and the West, including Colorado and Nevada, are not currently part of an RTO. 


           And so, this legislation requiring utilities to join or create an RTO is meant to support the development of regional transmission connections in the west. Finally, a good example of legislation that addresses the need to undercut new renewable energy sources to the grid was enacted in Maryland last year. Senate Bill 81 addresses the transmission expansion needed to accommodate the 8.5 gigawatts of offshore wind power that the state plans to have constructed by the end of the decade. The bill that PJM, Maryland’s RTO along with the state’s public service commission conduct an analysis of the transmission expansion and upgrades needed to accommodate this new energy source. And on top of that, the bill also included certain provisions for the analysis such as identifying solutions to these high costs and permitting risks while also taking advantage of existing infrastructure.


Ed:     Well, I’ve got to think they are trying to plan out electric transmission lines is to use a technical term a nightmare given all the different jurisdictions and people within a state who maybe don’t want that crossing their land. But I think what you are getting at is that there is also this regional effort so what are states doing specifically? Is that the main thrust is these regional efforts?


AM:   Building off of those examples of Colorado and Nevada that I mentioned, there are a few different ways that states are coming together on this issue. One way states may collaborate is through regional state committees. And regional state committees were created by states to work together on policies with their RTOs and these committees are basically made up of state energy officials or PUC members. Through these committees, states work together to voice their needs in policy input through the stakeholder process with RTOs or joint board meetings with their RTOs. Then another example of collaboration between states that is relatively recent is the New England State’s transmission initiative. And so, this initiative which just kicked off just over a year ago by give New England states looking to see how they could work together to build transmission infrastructure to interconnect new all through wind power. And so, this past year, these states along with New York and New Jersey sent a letter to the Department of Energy asking for funding and technical assistance to form the northeast states collaborative on interregional transmission. And this group of states crosses the footprint of three different grid operators so I think it is really a strong example of how states are taking the initiative to explore opportunities for interconnectivity across regions.


           TM:  29:15


Ed:     Given what you have described here that this is a way to enter, we know that we want more renewable energy. There are more renewable energy projects going on and as you say most of them are in more remote areas. And it seems as though the pedal is really being put down on this. Do you expect states to face more and more of these kinds of decisions?


AW:   I do think that this will be an issue that states are going to continue to focus more attention on. So, like I said, the majority of states have some sort of clean energy or renewable energy standard enacted. In about 15 of the states have the goal of reaching 100% of clean energy between 2040 and 2050. So, in order to reach these targets and connect new energy sources to the grid there will be significant transmission development and this development will need to happen relatively quickly as the planning, citing and then constructing of the transmission line can take decades. States are going to be kind of looking at how to speed up the transmission development process and we are seeing this right now with more states considering right of first refusal laws for transmission. So right of first refusal laws give the incumbent utility the right to construct and operate new transmission lines over other utilities. And this is seen as a method for speeding up transmission development by overweighting the bidding process with other utilities. And we saw a number of states introduce right of first refusal legislation last year. So, states are clearly exploring different opportunities and approaches to transmission development and I’m sure we can expect to see more transmission focused legislation in the future.


Ed:     Well, I expect we are going to have this conversation again, Alex, because I don’t think that this is by far the end of this policy discussion. So, thanks for very much for filling us in on this and we will talk again. Take care.


AM:   Thank you. Great to be here.


Ed:     I’ve been talking with Melissa Burchard and Alex McWard about the growing need for new electrical transmission lines and the role of state legislatures in that process. Thanks for listening.


You can check out all the podcasts from the National Conference of State Legislatures by searching for NCSL podcasts wherever you get your podcasts. This podcast “Our American States” dives into some of the most challenging public policy issues facing legislators. On “Across the Aisle” host Kelley Griffin tells stories of bipartisanship. Also check out our special series “Building Democracy” on the history of legislatures.