A modern electric grid is crucial to reach our clean energy climate goals
President Biden has issued a bold pledge to cut the greenhouse gas emissions that increasingly endanger our livelihoods, health and security — reducing U.S. emissions by 50 percent below 2005 levels over the next decade. In his recent address to Congress, the president showcased how his infrastructure proposal, the American Jobs Plan, will help prioritize investments toward a sustainable, clean energy economy. In particular, Biden highlighted building new electric transmission lines as central to U.S. goals, declaring, “the American Jobs Plan will create jobs that lay thousands of miles of transmission lines needed to build a resilient and fully clean grid.”
This commitment to modernizing our electricity transmission is crucial. Reducing greenhouse gases will require ramping up renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and hydropower, deploying electric vehicles and cutting methane from natural gas. But transmission lines must be built to deliver this cleaner electricity to customers who often live distant from the cleanest, low-cost energy sources.
Our current electricity grid is old and outdated, getting a dreadful C- rating from the American Society of Civil Engineers this year. We must update our transmission system to be more resilient against more frequent severe weather events climate change is causing, better able to repel cyber-attacks and to carry more clean energy so our citizens have reliable sources of power.
But here is a sobering reality — these ambitious clean energy goals will not be successful without a strong commitment by federal and state governments, and local communities, to support the construction of necessary transmission infrastructure. The “not in my backyard” sentiment, often stoked by misinformation campaigns, ends up placing barriers to creating long-term energy and climate solutions.
Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson recently held a conversation on climate change and energy technology at the New York Economic Club with Bill Gates, where transmission infrastructure was called out as one of the key challenges to a clean energy future. “There are days when I see…the pace of innovation and I feel, wow we can do this,” Gates said. “Then there are days when you look at like how [hard] it is to get transmission permitted in the U.S. and how that is just a conundrum that we don’t have a clear plan for.”
He was referring in part to a specific project underway in Maine — the New England Clean Energy Connect line — that will bring 1,200 megawatts of clean, low-cost baseload hydropower from Canada into Maine and New England. Experts at the Maine Department of Public Utilities have found the project will cut about 10 percent of the region’s carbon pollution emissions from electricity, the equivalent of reducing all the pollution from 700,000 cars every year. Just as important, the Maine independent experts found that the project would save consumers in New England $388 million each year in electricity costs over the next 15 years.
The New England project is a leading example of the clean energy infrastructure upgrades being championed by Biden, since the hydropower is an on-demand but clean back-up source for renewable energy — when wind isn’t blowing hard enough or sun isn’t shining enough to satisfy all electric needs.
Construction on the New England power lines has begun, but a major new obstacle has been placed in its path. In a case of moving the goalposts after the game has started, project opponents, funded in part by fossil fuel companies with legacy energy interests, have put a measure on the 2021 Maine ballot to retroactively prohibit the siting of a crucial segment of the line. The measure will also require an affirmative vote of the Maine legislature on all large-scale future transmission projects.
Opponents are spreading misinformation to Maine voters about the project’s environmental impacts, which are minor (two thirds of the line will be built in an existing transmission corridor, while the other one third will pass through land whose primary use is commercial logging). Low-income consumers will particularly benefit due to a $40 million low-income customer benefits, and rural Mainers will benefit from a $15 million broadband fund to bring high speed internet to homeowners that currently aren’t well served. If the ballot referendum passes, it will likely cripple this key project and have a chilling effect on the potential for new transmission projects in the region and the nation. This is no way to create a modern electric grid and clean energy economy while meeting the urgent climate change crisis.
Congress should consider legislation to provide greater federal siting authority to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for projects like these that are clearly in long-term national security, climate protection and consumer interests. A recent National Academy of Sciences report on achieving net zero U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 found that new siting and permitting for transmission must be pursued to “put in place, in a timely fashion, the kind of high-voltage interstate transmission system that is needed for deep decarbonization.”
As the president and Congress contemplate investment priorities for a more sustainable energy future, we must come together to support the infrastructure needed to deliver these benefits to consumers, our economy and our climate. America’s future investment in infrastructure and the clean energy economy cannot afford to be held captive by roadblocks from narrow, single-interest groups. Our people are counting on action now to lower energy prices, create good jobs and leave a cleaner world to future generations.
Paul Bledsoe is strategic advisor at the Progressive Policy Institute and professorial lecturer at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy. He served on the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Bill Clinton.
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