A bipartisan group of senators on Sunday unveiled its nearly $1 trillion infrastructure bill, formalized into text following a 67-32 consensus to advance the legislation. The vote to advance the bill included the support of 17 Republicans.
The approximately 2,700-page bill would invest billions of dollars in transmission and grid infrastructure, new advanced nuclear plants as well as current nuclear facilities, electric vehicle infrastructure, carbon capture and other clean energy resources. Ten senators led negotiations on the bill over the weekend, and it remains to be seen whether the legislation has enough support on either side of the aisle to make it to President Joe Biden's desk. The bill will likely face several rounds of amendments, according to multiple reports.
"While there is much to celebrate in this product of our bipartisan efforts, more work still needs to be done," Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who leads the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said Monday on the Senate floor. "Collectively, we've incorporated badly needed climate provisions in surface transportation, water, power and a number of other infrastructure programs. But, in truth, we have — in the words of Robert Frost — 'miles to go before we sleep, miles to go before we sleep.'"
Transmission, grid modernization
Transmission investment has become a key bipartisan policy tool that experts say can dramatically increase the share of renewables on the grid, lower costs and improve the grid's overall efficiency and reliability.
The Senate's latest proposal has the potential to provide $11.6 billion in funding for technology, including transmission, to bolster the reliability, resiliency and flexibility of the power grid.
A previous iteration of the infrastructure plan outlined in March by the White House called for Congress to invest $100 billion in U.S. power infrastructure, including through creating an investment tax credit to incentivize the buildout of at least 20 GW of high voltage transmission lines. The latest version of the bill does not include the tax credit, and it removes a provision that would have required the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to issue a rule on interregional planning. FERC opened up a proceeding to reform transmission planning during last month's open meeting.
The bill would give FERC broader transmission siting authority, despite efforts from some Republicans to remove that provision last month. Under current policy, transmission projects can take years to develop, and the proposed language seeks to remedy that by allowing the commission to overrule states that object to a power line buildout in instances where the proposed project is sited along a National Interest Electric Transmission Corridor. Such corridors are defined by the Department of Energy as regions in the U.S. where the public would benefit from additional transmission due to congested power lines coupled with high demand.
The federal government currently holds that same authority for gas pipelines, but not electric transmission lines, a mismatch that Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., pointed out during the debate in a July Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee meeting over whether FERC should be granted that authority.
"This federal backstop authority is the exact authority that exists for natural gas pipelines — that no one on this committee is suggesting we repeal," he said.
Transmission expert Rob Gramlich said the inclusion of transmission in the legislative package is important, but he noted more work still needs to be done to meet the ambition of the previous proposals.
"It is significant that the Senate bill recognizes the importance of transmission as a key part of the nation's infrastructure," said Gramlich, executive director of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid and founder and president of Grid Strategies, in an email. "We've come a long way in just a couple years. There is still a lot more to do, like pass a tax credit for regionally significant transmission as the Biden/Harris American Jobs Plan called for."
Nuclear, carbon capture a focus
The Senate bill targets two clean energy technologies that currently aren't an economically viable investment for most utilities: carbon capture and storage and nuclear power. It focuses less on renewables, though it does outline some provisions for solar, pumped hydropower storage and green hydrogen. Utility executives often cite the lack of an economical, dispatchable zero-carbon power resource as a major barrier to creating a carbon-free power grid.
On nuclear power, the legislative package targets aging power plants as well as yet-to-be-built small modular reactors. It sets aside $6 billion for the Department of Energy to spend on nuclear facilities that are under threat of being shut down due to economic factors. It also sets aside $6 billion in funding for microreactors, small modular reactors and advanced nuclear reactors.
The nuclear industry has struggled economically for decades, and proponents of the fuel believe policy should focus on saving existing plants and financing newer, smaller facilities.
The chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission earlier this year predicted that without congressional assistance, the nuclear industry would go under trying to compete with cheaper resources like wind, solar and natural gas. Three nuclear plants owned by Exelon in Illinois failed to clear the PJM capacity auction in June, following the utility's announcement earlier that year that the plants might face retirement without economic assistance from the state. Only one nuclear unit has been put into service in the last 30 years, and two units are under construction in Georgia, but the Georgia Vogtle project has run over budget and been delayed for years.
The Senate package is "a welcome step forward," said John Kotek, senior vice president of policy development and public affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute, but "additional action must be taken" to retain the existing fleet of nuclear power plants, including through a production tax credit.
Creating a viable market for carbon capture has thus far been elusive, and some experts don't see greater adoption of the technology happening without a tax on carbon.
The Senate bill sets aside $937 million for large-scale pilot projects over four years, $2.56 billion for demonstration projects over the same time period, $115 million for technology prize competitions, and billions more in carbon utilitization, carbon capture technology, and other carbon capture projects.
The investment represents "the most ambitious portfolio of carbon management policies in the world to date," said Brad Crabtree, director of the Carbon Capture Coalition, in a statement.
On the renewables front, the Senate's proposal would invest $2 million for a hybrid pumped storage and solar project. It also allocates $500 million to create incentives for siting five clean energy projects, including two solar projects, on current and former mining land.
The bill invests $7.5 billion in electric vehicle charging infrastructure, according to a fact sheet from the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, and $6.4 billion in vehicle emissions reduction projects, which EVs are eligible for. It also aims to decarbonize buses and ferries, investing $5 billion to replace existing school buses with "clean" vehicles. Half of the funding will go toward zero-emission school buses and the other half toward other buses that run on alternative fuels. Another $2.5 billion will go toward decarbonizing ferries, including through electrification.
Biden's proposal would have invested $174 billion in transportation electrification, which proponents of EV expansion called "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make real EV change in the United States."
"Nothing short of his full proposal will provide the investment needed to transition to this better technology," Plug In America spokesperson Noah Barnes said in an email. He added that the proposed spending in the bipartisan bill "is just a drop in the bucket of the investment we need." The group is calling on Democratic leadership to include the president's proposed spending in a future reconciliation bill.