Coordination between DOT and DOE could get U.S. on the fast track to building new transmission

Building more electricity transmission–particularly long connections between different parts of the U.S. power grid–will lower consumer costs, increase grid resiliency, and help deploy the renewable power necessary to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector. Despite those benefits, the building of new electricity transmission projects is stalled by challenges to financing and NIMBYism from landowners and other stakeholders. The Department of Transportation (DOT) could be a key to restarting the stalled expansion of transmission, but long-standing federal policy must be reconsidered to accommodate this new approach. 

Building transmission lines on federal land, or land with federal oversight, is one way to circumvent the arduous state-by-state siting process for granting rights-of-way (ROWs) for projects. The federal highway system is particularly attractive, as its existing ROWs span the country. In The Hill, John Porcari, Laura Rogers, and Jigar Shah suggest this route forward as one way to quickly meet the clean energy goals of the incoming Biden Administration.

Provisioning electricity along highways could also be used to support infrastructure for electric vehicle charging and other electrification solutions. The land has already been disturbed, so the environmental impacts would be lower, placing lines underground could avoid disrupting views, and the roads themselves provide access for future equipment maintenance.

Last year, a FERC staff report to Congress on high voltage transmission identified siting along transportation corridors as an opportunity. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) standard policy discourages electricity transmission projects, and this barrier must be removed for innovative siting solutions. 

The code of federal regulations (title 23 part 645 subpart B) identifies utility siting along highways as a public good and establishes the expectation that the FHWA develop procedures for such accommodation. However, these regulations note that safety, aesthetics, and other impacts that must be considered when a utility applies for use. This is where electricity transmission projects run into trouble. Attempts to use FHWA ROWs frequently encounter opposition based on the aesthetic concerns over the construction and the towers (for overhead lines) and unspecified safety concerns. Such challenges will have to be prevented by proactive coordination between DOE and DOT if the Biden Administration wants to pursue this approach. 

This coordination could fall under various authorizations from the Energy Act of 2020, which requires DOE to study undergrounding, grid architecture, and pathways for grid modernization. Doing this work in collaboration with DOT will require that this is a high priority for the administration.

Instead of starting with the premise that underground construction is an aesthetic and safety concern, DOT and DOE should establish the essential project characteristics that would minimize or alleviate these concerns and develop a process for transmission developers to work with them to streamline the siting process. Early on, an interagency study could consider what sections of highway ROW will be potentially useful for transmission siting, the potential for undergrounding lines, and the necessary interagency coordination. Maine and New Hampshire legislatures have established this as a priority for siting transmission and could be used as a guide. 

The current system of reactive response by FHWA to utility accommodation plans on interstates is not scalable. It does not support the expansion of transmission needed to decarbonize the power sector. As part of the Biden administration’s commitment to net-zero electricity by 2035, DOT’s federal standards for safety and aesthetics should be reviewed to develop solutions for working with transmission projects. Cabinet-level commitments to coordination between the Department of Energy and the Department of Transportation are necessary for this to be realized.

Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash