Energy Policy’s Orphaned Good Idea

Font Size:

Lawmakers are missing an opportunity to support renewable energy infrastructure.

Font Size:

The Republican Party’s current infrastructure spending bill is missing one item: a provision establishing federal siting authority for electric transmission lines. Oddly, this idea has few champions in Congress and only tepid support from environmental groups. This unfortunate lack of support bodes poorly for the transition to a low-carbon energy future.

Eight decades ago, Congress gave the federal government power to approve the siting of interstate natural gas pipelines but left the power to site electric transmission lines with the states. There was a good reason for that. Back then, electricity generation plants could be built close to consumers, while natural gas production could only take place wherever the gas was found, often far from markets.

Hence there was need for strong federal siting authority for natural gas pipelines. Without it, any state through which a pipeline passed could veto the project, preventing natural gas from reaching consumers. But now it is state vetoes of electric transmission projects that pose a problem.

The inability to secure state permission for new transmission lines is holding up renewable energy projects at a time when utility-scale renewables rank among our cheapest sources of electricity, even without subsidies. Problematically, the best locations for wind and solar power plants are far from population centers—in the windy central plains or the sunny southwestern deserts. More than ever, consumers want green power. For example, proponents of the Southern Cross Transmission Project—a transmission project that would link Texas to the Southeast— justify it not as a response to regulatory requirements, but rather as necessary to satisfy consumer demand for wind power. Some consumers, however, cannot get green power because state regulators will not approve transmission investments.

Republican leaders say they want to reduce regulatory barriers to infrastructure development. The new infrastructure bill strengthens existing federal siting authority for natural gas pipelines but would do nothing to create a federal siting regime for electricity transmission. Conservatives claim that federal transmission siting authority would threaten state sovereignty or landowner property rights, but those claims ring hollow. Why are those values worth protecting against transmission lines but not against natural gas pipelines?

What about Democrats? Some of their important constituents seem just as conflicted.

Green opponents helped convince New Hampshire state regulators to deny approval of the Northern Pass Transmission Project. The Northern Pass Project would have brought clean hydroelectric power from Quebec into New England, a region that relies primarily on traditional energy sources and has almost no wind and solar power. But the New Hampshire chapter of the Sierra Club, among other environmental organizations, opposed the Northern Pass Project.

Environmental advocates have garnered a great deal of attention lately for opposing pipeline projects, winning a few battles here and there. But even those victories sometimes seem pyrrhic for the environment.

For example, environmental opposition has prevented the expansion of natural gas pipeline capacity into New England, so that during the recent January cold snap, New England turned to dirty oil-fired electric generators once again. Elsewhere, environmental groups are challenging the constitutionality of the eminent domain power that typically comes with pipeline siting approvals. But in the future that argument could just as easily be turned against transmission projects needed to bring wind and solar power to consumers.

Meanwhile, oil and gas supplies remain plentiful and prices low. As the world economy heats up, domestic and foreign oil production is projected to increase, challenging the notion of an inexorable, long-term decline in U.S. reliance on fossil fuels. If cost-competitive utility-scale renewable energy projects are smothered in the cradle for lack of a transmission outlet, competitors, including fossil fuels, will only benefit.

Distributed energy alternatives, like rooftop solar panels coupled with batteries, can pick up some of the slack, but only some. Rooftop solar generation costs at least four times as much as utility-scale solar, placing a greater burden on the poor. It also poses more grid management complications than utility-scale renewables pose.

So it is ironic that just when inexpensive utility-scale renewable electricity offers new hope for greening the electric generation mix, it is hamstrung by local refusals to authorize the transmission investment necessary to make that happen. Creating strong federal siting authority would help fix that problem.

It is a pity that few policymakers and environmentalists seem interested in making that happen.

David Spence

David Spence is a Professor of Law, Politics and Regulation at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, where he researches and teaches about the law and politics of energy regulation.