By Jay Landers

Across the United States, demand for more high-voltage transmission lines continues to grow, driven by such factors as the need to increase the resilience of the transmission system itself, the push toward greater electrification, and decarbonization efforts. Despite this demand, the design and construction of new transmission lines frequently faces numerous hurdles.

In a bid to help address such hurdles, the U.S. Department of Energy recently released a final guidance document related to its National Interest Electric Transmission Corridor designation process. Through the NIETC process, the DOE can identify areas in need of new transmission development and help accelerate such development.

With the release of the guidance document, the DOE is seeking public input regarding areas of the country in which insufficient transmission capacity is harming consumers.

More transmission needed

The “three big” factors driving the demand for more transmission capacity are the need for greater resilience of the transmission system, the increasing electrification of buildings and transportation, and the rise in clean energy and renewable mandates and goals among certain states and individual utilities, says Larry Gasteiger, the executive director of the WIRES Group, a nonprofit trade association that promotes development of the North American electric transmission system.

“All of these factors are pushing for a need for a lot more transmission development,” Gasteiger says.

However, this need for more transmission capacity does not always result in the necessary development, Gasteiger says. “We're making progress towards meeting needs associated with the build-out of the grid, but we have a long way to go, and it's taking an awfully long time.” Contributing to the delays are “fairly intractable” problems related to the planning, financing, siting, and permitting of transmission projects, he says.

“Siting and permitting issues, i.e., determining the line’s route and securing the necessary land use authorizations, can (stymie) construction” of transmission projects, according to a June 2023 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research titled Transmission Impossible? Prospects for Decarbonizing the U.S. Grid.

This is because long-distance transmission projects “typically require permission from hundreds of different landowners,” the NBER paper states, continuing that “landowners often oppose high-voltage transmission lines due to concerns about visual impacts, perceived health effects, site preservation, and other issues.”

Transmission development has struggled to keep pace with the increased demands that result from greater use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.

Because utility-scale wind and solar power installations typically are far from the urban areas that consume the resulting electricity, additional transmission capacity often is needed.

Because there is not enough transmission capacity, the authors of the NBER paper point to the “increasingly common” practice of restricting the amount of energy generation from renewable sources when it exceeds demand or transmission capacity “despite the zero or near-zero marginal cost of these resources.”

Meanwhile, an “even more severe indicator of insufficient transmission capacity” is the “increasing prevalence of negative wholesale electricity prices,” according to the paper. Negative wholesale electricity prices exist when electricity supplies exceed demand and generators must pay to provide electricity to the grid, and they indicate the need for “increased transmission investments because at the exact same time these negative prices are occurring in some locations, there often are other locations not far away with customers willing to pay for additional electricity supply,” the paper notes.

Corridors of national interest

Under Section 216(a) of the Federal Power Act, the DOE is authorized to designate a geographic area as an NIETC if the area is found to have “present or expected transmission capacity constraints or congestion that adversely affects consumers,” according to the DOE.

On Dec. 19, the DOE released its guidance document spelling out how it intends to implement the NIETC designation process. “By focusing on narrow geographic areas where one or more potential transmission projects are under development, the process outlined in this guidance assists DOE in identifying NIETCs in targeted, high-priority areas, meaning those areas where NIETC designation is more likely to catalyze transmission development to alleviate transmission capacity constraints or congestion and the associated adverse effects on consumers, thereby making the most efficient and effective use of DOE’s resources,” the guidance states.

“NIETC designation will further the timely buildout of a reliable, resilient, and efficient national transmission system that facilitates the achievement of national energy policy goals while reducing consumer energy costs,” according to the guidance.

4-phased process

According to a news release issued the same day by the DOE, the process will consist of the following four phases:

  • “Collect information on narrow geographic areas where NIETC designation may be particularly valuable.
  • Publish a preliminary list of potential NIETC designations and collect more detailed information and feedback concentrated on the preliminary list.
  • Complete any needed environmental and other reviews, conduct robust public engagement, and publish one or more draft NIETC designation reports and environmental documents.
  • Conclude by publishing one or more final NIETC designation reports and environmental documents.”

Publication of the guidance began the first phase, a 45-day period in which interested parties could submit information and recommendations to the DOE regarding the designation of potential NIETCs. The deadline for such submissions was Feb. 2.

As part of phase 2, the DOE was to issue a preliminary list of potential NIETCs this spring. Publication of this list initiates a second 45-day comment period. After reviewing the public input, the DOE will rank potential NIETCs “based on relative completeness of information available,” according to the guidance.

For phase 3, the DOE will continue “to independently assess the basis for NIETC designation,” initiate the environmental review process as needed, and conduct further public engagement, according to the guidance. These efforts will culminate in “release of one or more draft designation reports and draft environmental document, as needed, for public comment,” according to the guidance.

Phase 4 will begin with the release of a final environmental impact statement for a selected NIETC. The DOE then will issue a record of decision for each NIETC for which an EIS was prepared.

Potential funding, permitting benefits

“Improving and expanding national transmission infrastructure is essential to not only meeting President (Joe) Biden’s clean energy goals, but also to ensuring that people across the country have access to resilient, affordable power,” said Maria Robinson, the director of the DOE’s Grid Deployment Office, in the Dec. 19 release. “We have built meaningful, collaborative, and widespread stakeholder engagement into our NIETC designation process to make sure we can clearly identify the areas that are the nation’s highest priorities for transmission and bring critical electric infrastructure there first,” Robinson said.

“NIETC designation unlocks key federal financing and permitting tools to advance transmission deployment,” according to the release. “These include public-private partnerships through the Transmission Facilitation Program under the bipartisan infrastructure law and direct loans through the Transmission Facility Financing Program under the Inflation Reduction Act.”

As for permitting, “NIETC designation allows the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to issue permits for the siting of transmission lines within a NIETC under certain circumstances where state siting authorities do not have authority to site the line, have not acted on an application for over a year, or have denied an application,” according to the release.

That said, just because a potential transmission project is within a designated NIETC does not guarantee it will receive funding from the DOE. “Developers of transmission facilities within a NIETC may apply for DOE funding opportunities and DOE will evaluate such applications based on the criteria for those funding opportunities,” according to the DOE’s guidance.

But will the NIETC designation process help alleviate some of the impediments to new transmission projects? Ed Hirs, an energy fellow within the economics department at the University of Houston, views it as a step in the right direction. “I think it will be helpful,” Hirs says. “Is it the silver bullet? No. But will it be helpful? Yes.”

This article is published by Civil Engineering Online.