More than a pipe dream: How we can better deploy electron pipelines


Chris Brown
President of Sales and Service in the United States and Canada at Vestas
Published on 5th of August 2020

Every week you open your browser, scan the headlines, and see something to the effect of, “fossil fuels are out and clean energy is in”. The recent court decision upholding the shutdown of the Dakota Access Pipeline and Dominion and Duke’s decision to abandon their Atlantic Coast pipeline project indicate a changing tide in how consumers and utilities view our energy future.

Most Americans want clean energy. People want electric vehicles and a cleaner environment. But, our policies on building the infrastructure to deliver this clean energy future have not caught up to public sentiment.

In June, the leading renewable energy trade associations made a goal to reach 50% renewable energy by 2030. Meanwhile, if elected, Joe Biden will push for a carbon-free power sector by 2035. Goals aside, the fact remains we need more transmission to move cheap wind and solar from more rural areas to load centers if we want to reach ambitious clean energy goals. We need a new wave of electron pipelines.

Unfortunately, unfavorable permitting policies mean a transmission project can take up to 10 years to construct. On the other hand, relatively favorable policies for natural gas pipelines mean they can breeze through their permitting approval process in as quickly as 1.5 years and start construction.

The Plains & Eastern transmission project exemplifies this problem. In 2009, Clean Line Energy Partners announced plans for a transmission line that would carry 4,000 MW of clean power from Oklahoma to load centers in the southeast and Mid-Atlantic. Years of navigating state and local regulations and gathering, then losing, federal support ensued.

By 2019, Clean Line had divested most of their transmission projects, including the Plains & Eastern Clean Line project, selling them off with the hopes someone else could overcome the endless regulatory and political battles associated with interstate transmission lines.

Why is it we have more favorable permitting policies for what we want less of—natural gas pipelines—and arduous permitting policies for what we want more of—clean power? If we have any chance of getting to 50% renewables or 100% carbon-free, our policies must be designed to deploy electron pipelines in the most efficient and safest way possible.


What’s the hold up?

The fundamental problem boils down to a difference in governance. Interstate natural gas pipelines are approved by a single authority – FERC – while interstate transmission lines are subject to multiple state and county jurisdictions.

The Natural Gas Act grants FERC sole authority over approval of interstate natural gas pipelines. Although there is no established timeline for when FERC must decide on a proposed pipeline, a study from a few years back found the average to be around 558 days, or a year and a half. Pipelines do need to obtain state environmental permits and work with other federal agencies if the route includes public lands. But, if a locality or state attempts to make the siting of the pipeline more arduous or block it completely, FERC’s approval can supersede their authority.

On the other hand, The Federal Power Act and subsequent court interpretations have determined states and localities have jurisdiction over the siting of interstate transmission lines. Right away one can see this process is going to be more time-intensive and costly compared to dealing with a single federal authority. Like natural gas pipelines, transmission lines obtain state environmental permits, and if the transmission line crosses federal lands the owner must get approvals from the BLM, DOE, the Forest Service and others depending on the situation. 

And then there is the elephant in the room: transmission lines are large and bulky, while natural gas pipelines are low to the ground and less obtrusive. The visibility of transmission lines can lead to local opposition that can derail projects. But there are ways to lessen their visual impact and to do so economically.

There are no unsolvable problems

We can improve transmission timelines through coordinated transmission working groups that focus on action, altering the siting process, incentivizing buried lines and community involvement, and leaning into new technologies.

We cannot get stuck in the world of “if onlys”. If only more people cared about transmission. If only siting policy were more favorable. If only we could solve transmission NIMBYism. There are no unsolvable problems.

When it comes to building the electron pipelines that will help us reach our clean energy goals, states should most definitely be involved. That’s why Governors, in coordination with utilities and wholesale markets, can create regional transmission working groups to identify transmission needs. Governance over transmission varies regionally, but key decision-makers making transmission build-out a top priority sends a clear signal that the siting process must be streamlined and improved.

The Midwest Governors’ Alliance took a similar step when they created the Mid-Grid 2035 initiative. But we need to do more. We need to convene more key decision makers across the country and we need to think less about future goals and more about actionable reforms. Let’s start acknowledging this is a problem we can fix now.

In addition to state input, there should be back-stop federal authority when transmission projects reach an impasse. The 2005 Federal Power Act attempted to give FERC this authority, but the rule framework was convoluted and limited in scope, leading to several court challenges. Through a clearer and more definitive act of Congress, FERC can serve as the final decision-maker when a transmission project cannot garner all permits from state and local authorities, or the permitting process is delayed beyond a year.

If the majority of a transmission line’s route has received proper permits, but a small portion has been denied or delayed by regulatory challenges, a transmission developer should be able to bring the case before FERC for final adjudication.

To address the aesthetic concerns of high voltage transmission lines, policy-makers can consider tax incentives or direct pay reimbursements for companies that bury their power lines near residences and towns or work with communities to design more aesthetically-pleasing structures.

To aid in the clean energy future, these incentives should only be available to power lines that predominately transfer renewable energy. This would allow transmission developers to accommodate the very real concerns of citizens and not break the bank.

Finally, we can leverage clean hydrogen—hydrogen produced from renewable energy and then used for electricity generation—to retool existing pipeline infrastructure. NextEra Energy recently announced plans for a pilot clean hydrogen thermal plant in Florida, making them one of the first big energy players to pursue clean hydrogen in the United States.

If clean hydrogen could be transported via existing natural gas pipelines in the US, we could reduce the need for transmission in some areas. In this way, we recycle existing infrastructure, while shifting our focus and resources toward transmission where we need it most.

We need to transfer the relatively easy aspects of natural gas pipeline siting to the electron pipelines that will help us maintain energy independence and fight the climate emergency. We also need to consider how we can capitalize on existing natural gas pipelines to avoid the siting problem all around. And we need to do all this while still listening to communities.

If you pass it, they will build

Many decision-makers and economists understand that policy can be used as a technology-forcing tool. John F. Kennedy’s promise to reach the moon forced countless aerospace breakthroughs. The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment led to technological advances in emission control technology. In other words, set a standard so high that a market for innovation is created.

However, there are far more times when technology is a policy-forcing tool. We are in the latter situation when it comes to transmission. Grid technologies exist that can help us achieve high levels of renewable energy integration even without a federal clean energy mandate.

High voltage DC lines coupled with line efficiency technologies, energy storage, and clean hydrogen can get us where we need to be. The fact we have the tools but are being hindered by piecemeal regulations should force serious reconsideration of a policy landscape where we make it easy to pollute and difficult to deploy clean energy. We must get out of our own way and let policy and technology work in tandem to reach our clean energy goals.