The BIG WIRES Act: How it Could Help Improve Grid Reliability and Expand Renewable Energy
In a past article, I wrote about permitting reform where I explained how we need to get clean energy projects approved at a much faster rate in order to fulfill the opportunities from the Inflation Reduction Act. The goal of the IRA is to reduce U.S. emissions 40% by 2030, but if clean energy permitting reform isn’t on the table, we will only see about 20% instead according to the Princeton REPEAT Project. As the world just briefly reached 2 degrees Celsius of average warming, this is just an intimation of the trends that lie ahead. Without immediate and drastic actions now, we won’t be able to secure a healthier future for generations to come. One bill in Congress is now giving us a chance to jumpstart the conversation on permitting reform, and that’s the BIG WIRES Act.
The Building Integrated Grids with Interregional Energy Supply (BIG WIRES) Act was introduced by Senator John Hickenlooper and Representative Scott Peters to help the U.S. improve both the connectivity and reliability of its electrical grid, setting guidelines for planning regions to add new transmission lines and be able to transfer specific peak loads between regions. Before getting to the actual bill, it’s important to stress how critical it is for the country to address the permitting reform issues that are keeping us from moving forward. Thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act, solar and wind projects are set to explode over the coming decades while tax credits for people who purchase EVs, install solar panels on their homes, and purchase other energy efficient products will help offset costs related to fossil fuel price hikes as well as the cost of purchasing them. In addition, the creation of new jobs in the clean energy sector will assist in the further phasing out of fossil fuels since we would have the ability to train those who had once worked in that sector.
However, we have a major roadblock thanks to how long it takes to get clean energy projects up and running. It currently takes about 4 to 5 years to approve them, much less than that of fossil fuels. In addition, litigation from people or entities who may happen to oppose certain clean energy proposals further complicates things since this process could take up to 6 years alone. This has impacted how our electrical grid functions and how much transmission we are able to add each year. Currently, we’ve been building our grid out by 1% per year over the last two decades, so for major projects like big wind and solar farms that are located away from households and businesses that need energy from them, that connectivity lacks enough transmission lines to connect the two.
These lines take about a decade to permit and build, so if we are to see these projects through, transmission lines need to be a primary focus. The 1% of lines that are being added will only amount to about 60 gigawatts of wind-solar power generation. Increasing it to 1.5% would result in almost double the wattage and 2% would provide us around 130 gigawatts by 2030. Of course, the problem of insufficient transmission lines doesn’t just keep us from more effectively combatting climate change. More powerful storm systems like tornadoes and hurricanes are causing more blackouts in vulnerable communities, and if planning regions are not able to transfer enough power to their neighbors, it will take longer for them to recover at the government’s expense.
The BIG WIRES Act aims to address all of these problems. The bill would authorize the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to require each transmission planning region, except for Texas since they have their own plan, to increase interregional transfer capacity to lesser of its current capacity plus 15% of peak load and 30% of the region’s peak load. Some regions in the U.S. are doing better at their ability to transfer power to and from their neighbors, California being one of those. They currently stand at 20% peak load which, simply put, is defined as a region’s biggest hourly electricity demand in a given year. The Southeast is faring worse with states like Florida being only able to transfer about 3%.
Under the BIG WIRES Act, Florida would have to go from its 3% capability to 15% while California would need to jump from 20% to 30%. The timeline for this plan is what’s needed to get to where we need to be. If the bill were to become law before the end of 2023, FERC would issue its ruling within 18 months (mid-2025), requiring regions to submit plans to increase inter-regional transmission within 2 years (mid-2027), including project cost allocation. The federal government won’t have to spend any money to implement any of these measures as costs would be left up to the regions as they see fit. If the regions are unable to come up with plans to increase transmission, then FERC will step in and do it for them.
Democrats and Republicans in Congress disagree on the level of involvement that FERC should have in this kind of work. Democrats, like their counterparts, want a streamlined process to avoid making these efforts complicated. Unfortunately, Republicans are not keen to the idea of allowing FERC to have so much oversight over them since they fear that communities won’t be able to offer their input, power companies will have less authority, and that regions will be less able to approve or reject projects. The BIG WIRES Act presents a more balanced approach that does give FERC authority to intervene when required but gives regions the actual responsibility to develop these plans. This gives environmental activists the opportunity to lobby Congress and build support for the bill which, at this time, is slowly generating positive feedback from lawmakers in both parties.
The year that BIG WIRES aims to have all this work completed is 2035, and regions must submit updated plans every 5 years. The benefits cannot be overlooked despite all the concerns both parties may have. They are as follows: 1) it will increase reliability and reduce blackout risks, 2) it will lower energy costs through cheap clean energy exports, 3) it will allow areas with plentiful clean energy to export it, 4) the bill is technology neutral as all types of power need transmission, 5) it will not cost the federal government anything, 6) costs to utilities and developers will more than offset by efficiency, and 7) it will provide flexibility as regions decide how they will upgrade their transmission systems. In short, giving up on this chance to move on to a better path of energy efficiency is inexcusable.
There’s simply too much on the line for us to maintain the status quo, and climate change will only worsen from our continued lack of action. Citizens Climate Lobby, the organization that I’m a member of, recently held virtual lobby meetings with 360 Congressional offices to build support for the BIG WIRES Act and seeks to work in a nonpartisan manner to do so. We need all the support that’s available, so tell your members of Congress about the opportunities that BIG WIRES has in store and discuss it with your respective communities. No change can occur without dialogue. After all, none of the great things that our society has achieved were easy. Every voice matters, so make yours heard today!