Last week, the White House announced two financial tools that can facilitate the installation of transmission lines to connect renewable energy resources to population centers across the country. At the same time, a report released by Americans for a Clean Energy Grid (ACEG) identified 22 high-voltage transmission projects, three of which are in Nevada, that could begin construction with more viable transmission policies in place.
The first financial tool made available is The Western Area Power Administration Transmission Infrastructure Program’s $3.25 billion fund, which consists of loans that can be leveraged for project development support. And more, the Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office has made available up to $5 billion in loan guarantees to support transmission projects owned by federally recognized tribal nations or Alaska Native Corporations.
Together, these funds could provide a head-start on infrastructure development and modernizing America’s power grid with transmission lines from renewable energy resources while Congress considers the Biden Administration’s proposed American Jobs Plan.
“There are some high-quality wind and solar resource areas that have no transmission at all and they need to deliver that power to population centers,” said Rob Gramlich, executive director of ACEG. “People generally want their power to be low-cost, reliable and come from clean sources. One of the best ways to do that is to tap into these large-scale wind and solar farms, and that can only happen if we build the transmission to deliver it.”
The three transmission projects in Nevada that were identified in ACEG’s report include Greenlink North, Greenlink West and the TransWest Express. Greenlink North would be a 235-mile transmission line connecting Ely to Yerington, while Greenlink West would be a 350-mile transmission line connecting Yerington to Las Vegas. Together, these transmission lines by NV Energy are projected to unlock access to 5,000 megawatts of previously undeveloped and inaccessible renewable resources.
The TransWest Express, which would combine two transmission lines spanning 732 miles, connecting Southern Wyoming to Southern Nevada. Once connected, TransWest Express would generate clean energy for communities in the states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California and Arizona.
The American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) is a partner with ACEG in its Macro Grid Initiative. ACORE recently released a study that recommends policy changes such as passing a transmission investment tax credit, making direct federal investment in new transmission lines, reforming the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s transmission planning and cost allocation, as well as a streamlining of the permitting process.
Attaining land permits for transmission line projects continues to be a barrier for developers. Having or not having a permit became a significant factor in determining which projects ACEG identified as “shovel-ready.”
“In the US, you have local and state authorities and different federal land agencies that you need permits from, so it’s taken many of these projects about 10 years to jump over all those hurdles,” Gramlich said. “But these developers are pretty persistent and on our list of 22 projects, they qualify if they were close to the finish line on all of their permitting.”
The Problem with Long, Linear Infrastructure
Aside from local, state and federal authorities, many transmission line developers also face permitting barriers from private landowners.
“When you have to cross thousands of parcels of land and get an agreement from a thousand private landowners, as well as numerous local communities, inevitably somebody is not going to be happy,” Gramlich said. “So it’s much more difficult than just building a wind project or a solar project where three or four, maybe 10 landowners are involved. Dealing with very long linear infrastructure means you have to be pretty close to perfect in negotiating with every one of them to reach an agreement on the use of the land.”
New opportunities, however, are being considered to streamline the permitting process. In the White House’s announcement, Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg committed to the use of public highways and other transportation rights-of-way to facilitate the siting and permitting process for these projects.
“There are often opportunities to build transmission lines along interstate highways and that can be very valuable because it’s very hard to find these long, existing corridors to put infrastructure,” said Gramlich. “There isn’t anyone else besides the transportation authorities who are in charge of those corridors, so the State Departments of Transportation are really in charge of how a corridor and highway right-of-way is used. We’re hopeful that the State Departments of Transportation will become much more amenable to using the right-of-way for transmission, based on this guidance.”
Gramlich said another consideration for transmission installation could be railways, also due to the extensive, linear nature of their corridors.
“To some extent, there’s federal government involvement in railways, but it’s mostly just the railway owner that essentially controls the right-of-way. But we’re starting to see some interest from railway owners to host transmission lines. So there are these existing, long, linear corridors that could be useful for reaching national clean energy and electric reliability goals. [These options] are not a magic bullet, but they’re an intriguing possibility.”
Nevada is in a Good Place
The state of Nevada, due to its geographical and topographical make-up, finds itself in a unique position to be at the forefront of modernizing America’s power grid with renewable energy resources.
“Nevada has a lot of really good renewable resources including geothermal, wind and solar,” Gramlich said. “Then all of the federal government controlled land [in Nevada] becomes important as the Biden Administration is going to try to enable clean power development on federal lands. Nevada is also at the crossroads of transmission delivery points in the western region, so there could be a lot of access points for resources to connect into.”
Consequently, local communities across Nevada stand to benefit from such an investment in its infrastructure.
“Transmission projects could put a lot of people to work directly in the near-term with good, well-paying transmission jobs, as well as enabling wind and solar generation projects to move forward. Then we’re going to see a lot of production of carbon-free energy that displaces dirtier sources, so they’ll have a big impact on our greenhouse gas goals, not to mention other pollutants that tend to have more local public health impacts. A lot of US cities have dirty power generation right near the city, but if they could access clean, more remote wind and solar then they can turn those dirty power plants down or shut them down completely and get cleaner air,” Gramlich said by phone.
An interconnected, green transmission line infrastructure would also improve the reliability and resilience of the state’s power grid, a benefit made evident in light of Texas’ statewide power grid failure earlier this year.
“What happens when there’s a heat wave or a cold snap or some weather event, the geographic scope of the weather event is usually not as broad as the geographic scope of the transmission system,” Gramlich said. “So you can share power from a neighboring region to fill in any shortfall and that’s enabled by a large-scale transmission. Texas didn’t have that opportunity because they have very limited interconnections, so in their February weather event that became a reliability and public safety issue.”
If all 22 projects identified by ACEG were to move forward, there would already be a 50 percent increase in renewable energy output in the country. Gramlich said, as a result, implementing these projects could propel the United States and subsequently, countries all across the world, to reach increasingly ambitious climate goal targets.
“The existing low-cost technologies that are available now are wind and solar and to deploy those on the utility scale, we need transmission lines. So with these transmission lines, we can meet some ambitious climate targets and if other countries around the world see the US moving forward to meet ambitious targets, then a lot of other countries are going to follow.”
Scott King writes about science and the environment for the Ally. Support his work.