Electric transmission expansion can be important for Governors to realize their policy objectives. However, multiple siting, permitting, and regulatory challenges pose significant barriers to transmission expansion. NGA is publishing this background brief to provide important background for Governors and Governors’ staff and highlight the tools Governors have at their disposal, based on state best practices, to more smoothly navigate and advance transmission projects.
The United States electrical grid is often referred to as the “largest machine ever made.” This “machine” was built across the United States over the course of the 20th century. The electrical grid crosses every county or parish of every state and territory of the United States. While the notion of the electrical grid as a single “machine” that provides power to every American is compelling, in reality the grid is comprised of thousands of entities operating fractions of the grid simultaneously. Given the mosaic nature of operation and governance of the electric grid, it has operated remarkably well for decades.
However, challenges to the grid, as it is currently structured, are beginning to mount. Extreme weather events, increasing demand for electricity, expanding technologies such as electric vehicles, and even individual policy decisions present new and evolving challenges to reliable grid operation. These challenges can be exacerbated by a geographic or temporal misalignment of power supply and demand. Electricity is needed in every home and business across the country but has historically only been produced in a relatively small number of places, e.g., powerplants. This has necessitated robust investment in transmission, high voltage long distance infrastructure, and distribution, lower voltage local infrastructure, across the grid. With the widespread deployment of renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar, we are encountering this fundamental misalignment at an even greater scale. The variable nature of these technologies requires further time-based balancing through storage or other means to make energy available when it is needed. There is growing recognition among policymakers and energy industry officials that expanding transmission infrastructure is key to meeting the challenges facing the grid and key to capitalizing on the opportunities offered by renewable energy.
The Edison Electric Institute estimated that their members, investor-owned utilities, invested $25 billion in transmission infrastructure in 2020 and another $27.8 billion in 2021. While these sums are substantial, they may not be sufficient. Even with these funds invested in transmission development, the possibility of lengthy project delays or failure remain. High profile public disputes over transmission projects in New Hampshire and Maine illustrate the complexity and potential risk of transmission development. A study by Princeton University estimated the United States would need to expand capacity 60% by 2030 to be on track to achieve a zero-carbon future by 2050. This would amount to an investment of roughly $360 billion by 2030 and $2.4 trillion by 2050. Timing is also a critical factor. A recent joint report on offshore wind transmission development, led by Brattle Group, found that beginning proactive planning for offshore projects immediately could save U.S. consumers at least $20 billion and reduce environmental and community impacts by 50%.
In response to these important challenges, Governors are taking a more active role in planning, maintaining, and appropriately siting transmission lines. There are various coordination, information sharing, and policy challenges that limit transmission expansion. To discuss these concerns, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) is publishing this background brief to support Governors and Governors’ staff on what actions and tools Governors have at their disposal, based on state best practices, to more smoothly navigate the siting and permitting process for transmission projects.
challenges to building transmission infrastructure
A variety of intersecting issues and concerns make transmission siting and permitting in general, and interstate/regional transmission siting and permitting in particular, difficult and time consuming to effectuate.
Challenge #1: The Fragmented Nature of Grid Planning and Operation
Since multiple entities plan, build, and operate the electrical grid, long distance planning, resource allocation, and cost-sharing questions bog down the siting and planning process.
Solutions for Governors:
- Governors can convene stakeholders from the public and private sectors to identify areas of agreement to build consensus.
- Governors can pursue regional compacts and multistate agreements to establish direct, state-to-state planning procedures, negotiate cost-sharing, and build capacity to streamline complex interstate project planning.
- Governors can create state siting offices to coordinate intrastate and interstate transmission siting and permitting efforts.
- Governors can shape state regulatory and policy processes through strategic appointments to public utility commissions, state energy offices, and other relevant state agencies.
Challenge #2: Transmission Line Right of Way Route Planning
Transmission lines are large and highly visible pieces of infrastructure with wide rights of way – in some instances up to 200-500 feet from the asset. The height of transmission towers can also impact historic, cultural, or natural landscapes.
Solutions for Governors:
- Governors can employ strategic land-use to steer transmission routes to publicly owned property and/or away from environmentally or culturally sensitive areas.
- Governors can co-locate transmission infrastructure along existing or previously impacted areas such as highway corridors or existing infrastructure rights of way.
- Governors can form strong partnerships with federal land managing partners and Tribal Nations to build consensus around proposed routes early in the siting and planning process.
Challenge #3: Community Opposition to Transmission Routes
Route selection can become controversial due to real or perceived impacts on the environment, home values, natural resources, cultural resources, and current land ownership.
Solutions for Governors:
- Governors can take an active role in advocating for specific transmission projects by working with transmission developers to directly communicate the benefits to their constituents.
- More broadly, Governors can directly engage local communities to communicate transmission benefits and ensure that local concerns are brought to the negotiating table.
Challenge #4: Bringing Offshore Wind Transmission On-Shore
Not all challenges are negative. Offshore wind development offers an enormous and largely untapped supply of carbon free energy. However, the specific ownership and organizational practices of offshore transmission line development are still being negotiated. Furthermore, there are limited points where offshore wind transmission lines can connect to onshore infrastructure.
Solutions for Governors:
- Governors could opt for a single state/territory approach to plan offshore wind transmission.
- Conversely, Governors can act jointly with other states in their region to proactively plan and develop offshore wind transmission.
- Governors can apply many of the solutions previously discussed under challenges #1-3 to challenges specifically related to offshore wind.
This brief is divided into five sections. The first portion of the brief is the Background Section, which briefly describes the technical background of the United States electrical grid. The Background Section also briefly discusses the regulatory entities that interact with transmission projects at the federal, regional, state, and local levels, describing the relevant parties and their authorities. The next section discusses the complexity of siting and planning transmission projects and discusses permits that might be required for such projects. Section Three describes the roles and responsibilities of Governors regarding siting and permitting transmission projects. Section Four offers a variety of tools and options that Governors may choose to employ to mitigate risk of failure on complex transmission projects and ultimately speed up the process. Finally, the fifth section concludes the brief by situating transmission projects within larger economic and policy developments that affect states and territories.