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With climate funding in hand, permitting reform is the last hurdle to unlocking U.S. decarbonization

A Black electrical engineer in a hardhat wearing a white T shirt and work overalls with a toolbelt stands between the first two of a long row of solar panels. Image Credit: Wix
Image Credit: Wix

We all know the story like the back of our hands: we have until 2050 to reach net-zero carbon emissions and until 2035 for the halfway point in order to limit long-term global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

This emission reduction will involve an electricity transmission away from fossil fuels to at least 90% renewable energy: employing an armada of solar, wind, hydrogen, geothermal batteries, and nuclear fusion.

When tackling climate change involves electrifying almost everything including a newer and cleaner grid, the Department of Energy estimates that we will need to expand our electricity systems by 60% on top of rebuilding and improving an aging electric grid, 70% of which is more than 25 years old.

And it needs to happen soon, for according to the Biden administration’s targets, the expansion will need to happen by 2030 – only eight years away.

Due to the nationwide electrification, by 2050, our electricity demand is expected to nearly double. This rapid expansion over the next eight short years will take a fleet of planning, permitting, and building at whirlwind speeds to scale renewable sources like solar and wind farms.

However, this quick planning cannot happen without an even quicker permitting process for new energy projects, which while swift, must stay true to the integrity of permitting, from wildlife, air, and water protection to federal and protected land usage. It also can’t happen without technological changes to the way we do transmission, making for a more resilient grid to keep up with the inevitable increasing demand.

Transmission towers stand above a steep cliff in a desert landscape underneath a cloudy sky.
Image Credit: Wix

What are the problems with permitting and transmission lines?

The renewable energy transition will require long-distance electric transmission lines to support clean energy from dense urban areas all the way to sparsely populated rural regions.

But, building a transmission line in America is hard. According to the ​​American Clean Power Association, last year, the U.S. only installed 400 miles of new lines compared to the 1,200 installed in 2020. This is largely because of the slow permitting process, making connecting America’s regional grids a challenge for several reasons.

For one, projects crossing federal lands require approval from multiple agencies; the puzzling arena of permits and regulatory obstacles often ends up stalling projects instead of punctually ensuring they meet regulations. For example, reports of 10 or more year timelines for transmission lines aren’t uncommon, and when both solar and wind projects face long permitting holdups, our very time-sensitive emission reduction goals are challenged, costs increase, and in some cases, investors and developers lose interest in a project entirely.

Secondly, there is no umbrella organization whose job is to connect inter-regional lines. And thirdly, transmission lines are, by nature, a politically tough sell. Aside from land use and cost controversy, long lines pass through regions without supplying power to the communities they cross, creating resistance in towns and cities that host them without receiving the benefits.

Permitting reform has been attempted across presidencies, from Biden to Trump to Obama. However, bureaucratic hurdles and obstacles over the last decade and a half have stalled reform efforts. The think tank Brookings Institution has a great explainer of the historically lengthy permitting process.

Aside from issues with permitting, our existing system of transmission lines are insufficient for the large-scale deployment of clean energy — like wind, solar, and hydroelectric — that the country needs to meet our decarbonization goals. The best places to put these transmission lines would be on available land in less populated areas, but these regions are far away from urban centers where the energy is needed.

Improving transmission line infrastructure would unlock our capacity for renewable electricity. but a better permitting process is needed to do that.

Along with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, Senator Joe Manchin (the one who blocked the sweeping climate measures that would later become the most expansive climate bill in U.S. history) was also guaranteed a side deal that would allow for reforming the thorny permitting process.

But, the problem arises when the same permitting process used for clean energy is also used for fossil fuel projects. Over the last decade, Republicans have championed permitting reform for fossil fuels and Democrats for renewables, causing headbutting on the current wave of regulatory legislation attempts.

The results of Manchin’s deal were released in September as the “Energy Independence and Security Act.” While it has since been shot down by both progressive and conservative opposition, the bill is likely to make another appearance later this year.

Climate protestors march in the streets carrying signs that have slogans like "Our Future Is In Your Hands"d
Image Credit: Wix

The problem with Manchin’s permitting reform bill

Tucked into Manchin’s side deal was a plan to fast-track the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), a pipeline that advocates across Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina have been rallying against over the last few years.

Despite efforts to mitigate climate change, in recent years, U.S. production of natural gas has soared, turning the country from a net importer of the fuel to an exporter, largely due to growth across Appalachia: from Pennsylvania to Ohio to West Virginia. According to Reuters, pipeline projects have resulted in a 60% gain in output over the last decade. In the Appalachian region alone, gas output was about 35 billion cubic feet per day in 2020, jumping by 700% since 2011, a report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline is expected to power 10 million homes each day, with a $6.2 billion price point. With all of the energy it provides, it also equals 37 coal mines or 27.3 million vehicles worth of greenhouse gas emissions.

Aside from fast-tracking and blocking potential litigation, Manchin’s bill also said that if litigation outside of permitting came up, the federal government could dictate it as opposed to the local circuit court, setting what advocates call a dangerous precedent.

MVP exemplifies why traditional pipelines are hard to pass. Without its federal permits, the pipeline remains unfinished because it has repeatedly failed to meet environmental standards. And groups like the Sierra Club and Appalachian Mountain Advocates sued federal agencies to block the development.

Fossil fuel pipelines affect the safety of residents near them, posing threats to clean water, air, and soil. Historically, pipelines disproportionately affect lower-income communities and communities of color.

The pipeline materializes as the debate over the degree to which fossil fuels persist in our clean future, and the jobs the pipeline could create. For utility companies and industrial energy users on one end of the pipeline, natural gas is a part of their clean energy plans, since it would reduce their use of coal. But, for people on the other end, it creates both a health and environmental hazard, interrupting a just transition to renewable energy.

The bottom line is that is two-fold. 1) Despite some recent acceleration under the Biden-Harris administration, challenges remain for permitting clean energy projects because of the correlation with fossil fuel projects and in terms of federal authority and grid interconnections due to the messy process.

2) High-voltage transmission is needed to meet America’s climate goals. According to a Princeton analysis, in spite of all the roadblocks, the country will need to more than double the rate of transmission development this decade to fully realize the emission benefits of IRA funding.

An electric utility worker works to repair a power line. Image Credit: Wix
Image Credit: Wix

Can startups revolutionize American transmission?

Pipelines face a myriad of issues from the bureaucratic permitting process to the outdated infrastructure to the traditional structure that leads to local opposition.

Whether or not Manchin’s permitting reform bill stays in its current form, legislative activity in the area will continue. As it remains a preeminent portion of energy policy debate, a solution may be revolutionizing the way we do transmission altogether. Several startups are working to tackle the problem.

High-temperature superconductors or HTS have long held the promise of using smaller transmission lines to evade the political opposition current transmission lines are facing. Standing for “Total Solution,” TS Conductor, a California-based energy startup, is updating existing steel-based conductor/wire transmission technologies — a segment of the grid that has changed little over the last century.

According to the company, updating this segment can increase the capacity of existing lines by 2.5 times without having to change or retrofit the existing supporting infrastructure. Reportedly, it would allow for the electrification of buildings, transportation, and industry “while minimizing the environmental impacts of infrastructure upgrades and new construction,” which in turn, could evade some permitting issues.

In 2021, three of TS’s partners – Breakthrough Energy Ventures, National Grid Partners, and a subsidiary of NextEra Energy – financed its $25 million funding round, for its potential implications in grid resiliency and distribution.

Similarly, LineVision, a monitoring and analytics startup is aiming to improve the capacity, resilience, and safety of the grid. Last December, the New York Power Authority announced it would employ LineVision’s technology to monitor its transmission lines. Most recently, the startup announced a $33 million Series C funding round.

Aside from unlocking the additional capacity of the grid, the company’s data provides insight into conductor health and watches for potential risks to the transmission system. In addition to increasing grid capacity needed for our transition, but working with numerous North American utilities, LineVision allows these companies to improve both the accuracy and transparency of transmission line ratings in accordance with federal policy.

Another startup, Pearl Street Technologies, applies methods used in computer chip circuit design and simulation to grid planning. According to the firm, targeting transmission networks in the U.S. is a smart move because the federally regulated nature allows for the ability to access clean data on a national scale.

Other grid modernization companies making sparks fly in the sector include NewGrid, a congestion monitoring/mitigation solutions startup, and VEIR, which like TS Conductor is developing a new approach using high-temperature superconductors or HTS.

According to VEIR via Power Energy International, due to high costs, distance limitations, and overall system complexity, HTS has yet to take off. Using HTS, the startup has created a novel system for high-voltage superconducting transmission lines that connect green energy sources to the transmission grid.

The company says its approach allows transmission deployment to catch up with renewable innovation to provide power over long distances without the physical footprint and tall towers of conventional transmission. Like VEIR, other movement in the sector is aiming to circumvent community pushback by lowering transmission visibility by either putting them underground or on highways.

Modernizing technology could change the way we do transmission, by electrifying existing infrastructure, aiding utility companies in their transparency, and overall improving the resiliency of our grid. Expanding our grid and fixing the issues with that expansion will take movement from both the policy and technology arenas. While the legislative future of permitting and transmission is unclear, one thing is: in order to get to net zero both the political and technological process of American transmission must evolve.

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