In April 2021, Clean Air Task Force and the Niskanen Center hosted a half-day workshop with leading academics, industry professionals, and regulators to consider the state of electric transmission and clean energy policy in the U.S. and the need for a fundamentally new approach for building new transmission quickly in light of the need for a net-zero carbon energy system. Following the workshop, we tested our conclusions with the attendees and additional experts to capture the spectrum of issues that transmission and clean energy infrastructure face.
The workshop resulted in a canvas of public policy possibilities, but—importantly—concluded that assembling a set of policies should be secondary to establishing the organizing principles. Policymakers must grapple with the appropriate role of private enterprise and public initiative to create a coherent set of policies that addresses the breadth of new infrastructure needed and ensures a sustained commitment to the effort.
Just a week before the publication of this report, the Senate passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Two of the provisions in the IIJA are captured in this report, both of which weigh on the side of a stronger federal role: the “anchor tenant” funding mechanism and strengthening the federal “backstop” siting authority. The Budget Reconciliation process may include additional policies, such as an investment tax credit, which would weigh on the side of supporting private enterprise.
Electricity transmission development has been languishing for more than a decade without significant policy changes. These incremental changes represent an important recognition by lawmakers of the need for more transmission capacity and the imperative for effective transmission policy to achieve it.
But as we consider the next few decades, the underlying questions must still be answered: what policies can get projects built at the needed scale and speed without replicating the inequitable implementations of past infrastructure expansion, and what are the most appropriate roles for government and the private sector? The 5P framework proposed in this paper is both a scaffold and a call to action, and the specific institutional reform proposals we suggest for consideration are designed to sharpen the discussion. We must incorporate public participation and establish a transparent and consistent development process to improve upon the traditional planning, permitting and paying aspects of infrastructure policy. And we also need to get the job done in just a few decades.
The policies in discussion in Congress are a step forward, but there are many gigawatt-miles to go.