Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Rep. Sean Casten, D-Ill., plan to reintroduce a bill Tuesday that would direct the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to tackle interregional transmission planning.
The bill, which Heinrich previously introduced in 2019, would give FERC six months to improve interregional transmission planning to expand and expedite projects. FERC Chair Richard Glick has indicated interest in pursuing transmission reform, and last week the commission dropped a previous plan to increase incentives for transmission investments, something Glick had argued did not go far enough in addressing barriers to construction.
Casten said FERC seems to be broadly headed in the right direction under Glick's leadership, but that "friendly pressure" from Congress couldn't hurt. One political barrier Democrats could face in examining transmission siting is how to simultaneously heighten regulatory pressure on the oil and gas sector while trying to build electric transmission as efficiently as possible, he said.
Transmission capacity needs to double, by some estimates, to fully decarbonize the power grid and electrify transportation and other sectors, requiring billions of dollars in investment over the next several years.
Heinrich and Casten's bill would direct FERC to explicitly consider several transmission benefits when evaluating proposed projects, including the potential to reduce carbon emissions by allowing for greater use of renewables. It also directs the commission to require stronger interregional collaboration and to apply "consistent consideration" of transmission's benefits
"FERC's interregional transmission planning process is not working – we have to work with each other across state lines on joint planning processes and full evaluation of interregional transmission solutions and their benefits," Heinrich said in a statement.
FERC's Order 1000, issued in 2011, attempted to lower some barriers to transmission development, but it is widely acknowledged to have missed the mark. Transmission projects still take a decade or more to plan, approve and construct, and interregional planning is essential to minimize customer costs, according to a 2019 study from The Brattle Group and WIRES.
Gas transmission development faces fewer barriers, Casten pointed out, and although the electric and gas sectors seemingly operate under different levels of scrutiny, navigating the politics of strengthening regulations for one while lowering barriers to the other could prove tricky.
Under President Joe Biden's Build Back Better plan, a provision would establish a Grid Deployment Authority under the Department of Energy to better take advantage of existing rights-of-way and spur investment in new high-voltage transmission lines. But addressing rights-of-way may be complicated in its overlap with the oil and gas sector — a line Congress will have to toe, Casten noted.
One of Biden's first acts as president was to revoke the Keystone XL Pipeline's permit, halting construction on the project. But the Department of Justice is now backing the PennEast gas pipeline's bid to use federal eminent domain rules to build its way through New Jersey, potentially a sign the Biden administration sees ceding eminent domain authority as a risk to big electric transmission buildouts, E&E News reported.
Certainly in Congress, those conversations are happening, Casten said. From one perspective, smoothing the transmission permitting process to bring more green energy on the grid looks like a "good Democratic priority;" from another, increasing eminent domain for energy projects "sounds an awful lot like making it easier to build Dakota Access."
"We're having those conversations internally," he said. "And I don't know how they're gonna resolve, frankly, because I think a lot of people who have very passionate views on the issue are viewing it either as an electric problem or an oil pipeline problem."
"There's not a lot of folks who are viewing it more holistically," Casten added. "And I don't see that as a criticism. It's just there are not a lot of people who would have experience in both of those markets. But we need to talk through and we need to figure it out. And I don't have an easy answer."