The importance of updated methods of transmission planning to meet decarbonization and reliability goals was a hot topic at a recent national gathering of state utility commissioners, with the conversation energized by a renewed push at the federal level for more transmission.
There is growing recognition that traditional approaches to transmission planning are not sufficient for the modern grid, which was reflected in comments during panel discussions at a conference of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners in Denver, Colorado, this week.
"The model that we currently have to build out transmission is not working or getting us where we need to be," Idaho Public Utilities Commission member Kristine Raper said. She added that accelerating transmission development "is going to have to be an alternative approach."
Central to the conversation in Denver was a new rulemaking by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on July 15. FERC will seek public comment on potential reforms in longer-term planning and cost-allocation processes; cost responsibility for network upgrades; and "enhanced transmission oversight" to identify and pay for new transmission lines (see CEM No. 1650).
At the conference, NARUC nominated 10 members of a new FERC-NARUC task force on electric transmission planning. Nominees from the West include California Public Utilities Commission member Clifford Rechtschaffen and Raper, the Idaho commissioner. Other commissioners will represent the mid-Atlantic, mid-American, New England and Southeast regions if appointed.
States and the federal government "are not able to achieve transmission goals unless we work together," FERC Chairman Richard Glick said at the conference, adding that the task force could serve as a "model moving forward" to address other issues. Glick said that he anticipates holding the first task force meeting during the NARUC Annual Meeting and Education Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, Nov. 7-10.
Meeting reliability and decarbonization goals will require more interregional planning, which has had good results in the Midcontinent Independent System Operator and Southwest Power Pool, Rob Gramlich, founder and president of Grid Strategies and advisor to NARUC, said.
"It is a lot more expensive to continue to do the reactive, incremental approach than it is to do the proactive, efficient-scale approach," Gramlich said.
It's easier to make projects pencil out with a multi-value approach, rather than focusing on singular factors such as transmission congestion, Gramlich said. Regional and large-scale high-capacity systems provide more economy of scale, as the MISO did with its "multi-value" transmission corridors, which are an example of the efficient-scale approach, he said.
The "three P's"—planning, permitting and paying—are the main concerns in transmission development, including how to measure benefits, which can include grid resilience, according to Gramlich. FERC is on track with its proposed rule, he said. He also mentioned U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg's recent proposal to build transmission infrastructure along highway and rail corridors. Highways and rail provide long, linear corridors that generally match with energy needs, Gramlich said.
Load forecasts are helpful in transmission planning, but more generation forecasts should be employed, especially on a regional basis, Gramlich said. Paying for new infrastructure and allocating cost responsibility is the hardest part, he said, adding that FERC could put cost-allocation principles in place.
FERC's new rulemaking "looks great to me, at least the questions they asked," Gramlich said.
"We will try our best in Washington to get some federal dollars here to alleviate the burden on ratepayers," he said, adding that there is a lot of action in D.C. right now on loans, grants and tax credits for regionally significant transmission projects.
Meeting a zero-emission goal for the U.S. grid by 2035 would require a wind and solar buildout equivalent to total installed generation capacity today, according to Debra Lew of Energy Systems Integration Group. She added that wind and solar are the "cheapest form of energy we have today." Demand will also increase through building and transportation electrification and other factors, she said, adding that transmission is key to meeting those goals.
Distributed energy resources will help, but will not be enough on their own, Lew said, adding that transmission will help with not only energy deliverability, but also resource adequacy and resilience. For example, an additional gigawatt of interconnectivity into Texas during the February outages could have prevented $1 billion in damages and kept heat and light flowing to hundreds of thousands of people. An increase in interconnection between Texas and other regions "could have helped them immensely" during the blackouts, she said.
AC and DC transmission was the biggest modeled addition to planning to meet 50-percent solar and wind penetration in a MISO study of renewables buildout, Lew said.
"The biggest thing they added to make the system reliable across all time scales was [transmission]," she said, adding that the cost of transmission is lower than the cost of other infrastructure that delivers electricity. She recommended a new national authority that conducts ongoing national transmission planning; renewable-energy resource zones; and a national "macrogrid" that connects various regions of the country.
The new NARUC-FERC effort will accelerate the focus on transmission; however, previous federal efforts to establish transmission corridors in the U.S. years ago met with heavy public opposition, and resistance from localities and environmental groups to new transmission lines will likely be a factor in any new buildout.