We Can’t Fix Climate Change Until We Fix Electric Transmission

Meeting President Joe Biden’s target of a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and net zero by 2050, will require coordinated efforts across industries, but above all the electricity sector. This sector is the second largest source of GHG emissions in the United States, yet it presents the greatest opportunity to address the threat of climate change — if we act now.

Last month, I testified before the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis to discuss one of the key steps we can take to help achieve the president’s emissions reduction goals: investing in our electricity transmission. Transmission is the enabler and facilitator that links remotely located clean energy resources to our population centers, playing a critical role in transforming our country’s generation fleet to cleaner and more sustainable sources.

But here’s the challenge: In order to do so, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University estimate the United States will need to double or even triple its electricity transmission capacity.

Yet investment in transmission is hindered by an uncertain regulatory environment that is delaying this clean energy transformation. The reality is transmission infrastructure takes years to plan and permit before a project is shovel-ready, and so while Biden’s infrastructure plan includes a strong focus on transmission, those proposed investments need to go hand-in-hand with changes at the federal agency level to facilitate transmission development and shorten this extended process.

Large-scale investment in transmission requires a supportive regulatory structure that promotes proactive regional planning and appropriately assigns the costs of transmission upgrades, given the significant benefits this infrastructure provides for decades to come. Absent these policies, the long lead time needed to build transmission infrastructure could prevent us from being able to deliver significant emissions reduction for the energy sector.

While meeting Biden’s proposed goals is important, the need for transmission investment, however, goes beyond renewable energy and decarbonization. The U.S. electric grid is aging. About 70 percent of the electricity grid’s transmission lines and power transformers are at least 25 years old. Older infrastructure, which wasn’t built to meet today’s electricity demands, is less resilient and reliable. It’s also not built to withstand the extreme weather that’s increasing in frequency and severity. When mother nature strikes, it often results in more and longer outages due to the significant damage to our critical infrastructure. In order to harden our energy infrastructure against these increasing catastrophic weather events, we need new transmission investment that doesn’t just reduce GHG emissions, but also to respond to their effects.

The need for significant and immediate new investment in transmission may sound daunting and expensive, but it does not need to be. The key is to plan this transition appropriately. A recent study from Americans for a Clean Energy Grid concludes that a “transmission-first” approach to clean energy deployment will actually save customers money. This means building larger, “backbone” projects up front, in areas ripe for developing abundant and cheap wind and solar generation. Taking a cue from how our country built our highways – by focusing first on the interstate highways before planning the secondary roads – a transmission first approach is more cost effective than incremental additions to the system and will ultimately lower customers’ energy bills by efficiently providing them access to lower-cost generation.

To accelerate the clean energy transformation, supportive regulatory policies are needed that reflect and consider the changes in state renewable requirements, transportation electrification, new technologies, and the shift from large baseload generation to remote intermittent resources.

We must adopt transmission planning processes that require regions to recognize and “count” all the broad benefits of a given transmission project such as reliability, resiliency, economic and environmental. It’s also important that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission remove unhelpful policies that make transmission development slower and more complex and avoid financial signals that run contrary to building needed transmission.

Today, we stand at a crossroads. We can seize this opportunity to invest in new transmission that will unlock abundant, affordable clean energy and increase the resilience of our energy system. However, if we fail to act with urgency and make the necessary regulatory changes to do so, the grid could become a significant roadblock to climate progress. Let’s get to work.


Linda Apsey is president and CEO of ITC Holdings, the largest independent electricity transmission company in the United States and is responsible for the strategic vision and overall business operation of ITC and its subsidiaries.

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