It IS a way to increase innovation, it’s NOT central planning.

National transmission planning is a burgeoning topic and policy opportunity. Americans for a Clean Energy Grid recently called on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to “strengthen transmission planning through a new nationwide transmission planning and cost allocation rule.” The Energy Systems Integration Group released a report last week detailing the need for a national transmission plan. Some have suggested that a more robust transmission system could have benefited Texans facing blackouts in frigid temperatures. 

So what is a national transmission plan, and why do we need it?

1. It is a framework. It is a plan to help accumulate shared benefits that individual actors do not fully realize themselves. It takes into account technology, regional economic needs, cost-allocation tools, and more. Regional transmission organizations follow a planning process for their members and constituents, informed by FERC orders. A national plan would create a standard framework incorporating goals such as net-zero by 2035 and non-wire solutions and policies for building new lines and integrating new power sources. 

2. It’s also a process.  Transmission planning should be a dynamic, technological and political process for identifying and addressing the grid’s needs. Process works. The available and economic technologies will change over time, as will the energy demand. As the grid evolves, and the technology evolves so too will the plan evolve, but it will continue to support the fast transition to a net-zero electricity system.

3. It will speed up innovation and lower costs. We currently do not have a consistent set of rules for transmission development. Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs) have different processes that must be satisfied if the RTO planning process is even used for a given line. Interstate and interregional lines, which can deliver carbon-free electricity from remote locations and increase grid resilience, are not developed as a result. A robust national planning process, with goals and metrics for the electricity transmission system, establishes the rules of the game and provides regulatory certainty for developers of both transmission and generation projects. This will allow new lines to be designed and built faster, including those that introduce new technology to the grid. More transmission saves consumers billions, adds jobs, and increases air quality. Coordinated planning is a key to that

Now that we’ve established what it is, let’s clear up some misconceptions about what it’s not:

1. It’s not central planning. Yes, there are provisions in the EPAct of 2005 that allow the Department of Energy to pursue partnerships to build transmission lines. Some individual lines may be built under these provisions, but a national plan for transmission does not preclude private production of transmission infrastructure. Investor-owned utilities (IOUs) own 80% of transmission in the USA, and federal government entities own 8%. Federal authority and partnerships may be used to spur development but are markedly different from a central planning approach where the federal government owns, builds, and manages a national grid.

2. It’s not a map of lines (like in this, or this, or this). A national transmission plan is not an idealized, static map or the result of a cost optimization model. They may inform the development of a plan, but these studies do not represent a plan in and of themselves. A national plan does not necessarily need to define exactly where new transmission lines are built, or how many megawatts each one should be, or even what technology should be used. Those are engineering and business decisions that will be made by various actors, public and private, during implementation. 

3. It’s not just about building more lines. There’s a growing consensus that we need more transmission capacity, and certain regulations make that more difficult. A national transmission plan will very likely identify new transmission lines to be built. It could also address grid enhancing technologies (GETS) such as software, sensing, and grid control solutions; cost allocation (who pays for transmission); and standards for integrating renewable energy. 

Over the past 25 years, the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission has issued orders that have expanded transmission planning and clean energy access, but their regional scope limited their impact. In the absence of a national plan, investment and technology choices today are decarbonizing too slowly, which will only further constrain our future choices for combating climate change and cost more overall. A national approach can deliver national benefits, at the speed necessary to meet the challenges of climate change.