Macro grid will keep the lights on

Americans are increasingly worried about the state of our power systems, and with good reason. Cold snaps in Texas and the Great Plains states, and heat waves in California have strained our electric grid, leaving millions exposed to the elements and hundreds tragically dead. Unfortunately, extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and severity, and are the principal contributor to the recent increase in the duration of U.S. power outages. Passing the transmission and clean energy provisions in the Build Back Better Act (BBBA) would spur new private sector investment that could help reduce those outages.

Our grid should be reliable — it should work when we flip the switch. But the fact is, our system is antiquated, balkanized, and in need of a serious update after decades of underinvestment.

As the backbone of the nation’s electric power grid, a more robust high-voltage transmission network — a ‘Macro Grid’ — is needed to ensure homes, schools, hospitals, and emergency services in our communities have low-cost power available at all times. Strategic investments in the nation’s high-voltage transmission grid would add new capacity and increase flexibility, enabling the system to withstand extreme weather events and other threats. 

To help put this in perspective, a recent report found that each additional gigawatt of transmission capacity connecting the Texas power grid with neighboring states in the Southeast could have saved nearly $1 billion and kept the heat on for approximately 200,000 Texas homes during Winter Storm Uri last February. The report found that additional transmission ties between grid regions can generate significant cost savings for consumers and reduce outages during extreme weather events. Making the grid bigger than the weather provides massive reliability, economic, and environmental benefits.

Fortunately, Congress has begun to recognize the importance of upgrading our transmission infrastructure to ensuring a secure and prosperous future. The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed by President Biden in November of last year, contains several provisions to help expand and upgrade the nation’s electrical grid, including language clarifying the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s backstop siting authority and a new Department of Energy program to support the construction of transmission lines and other facilities. The legislation reflects the growing support for transmission expansion on both sides of the aisle.

But these programs are just a small down payment on what’s needed. Numerous provisions in the BBBA would help bolster the buildout of transmission. Perhaps most important is the inclusion of a new investment tax credit for regionally significant transmission, a tool that could spur the needed investment in large-scale lines while keeping customer electric rates affordable. Other critical elements include grants and loans for the purpose of constructing new lines and for upgrading inter-ties between the various interconnections; funding for grid resilience upgrades; the provision of new assistance to state, local, and tribal governments for permitting and siting; and funding for DOE to perform transmission planning, modeling, and analyses.

As we begin the new year, we look forward to working with the Biden administration and Congress to pass this important legislation in order to keep the lights on and help achieve a 21st century Macro Grid.

Gregory Wetstone is president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, a national nonprofit that unites finance, policy and technology to accelerate the transition to a renewable energy economy. Rob Gramlich is the executive director of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, a non-profit broad-based public interest advocacy coalition focused on the need to expand, integrate, and modernize the North American high-voltage grid.

Energy Environment