The $369 billion Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) has been celebrated as the most significant climate legislation in U.S. history. Still, a crucial piece of the electrification puzzle is missing. Incentives for clean power will increase generation, but decarbonization can only be attained if we also build the electricity transmission infrastructure needed to supply energy to consumers. This is why we must prioritize rapidly expanding and modernizing the grid to keep up with IRA investments.
In their Net Zero America Study, Princeton researchers modeled the country’s possible decarbonization pathways for achieving President Biden’s 2050 climate goals. They found that U.S. electric capacity will likely need to triple to meet the demands of the energy transition, regardless of our future generation mix. The pace of transmission expansion has slowed over the last decade, putting this goal out of reach unless policies and practices change.
Solar and wind energy are now cheaper than their fossil fuel competitors in many cases, and their ample potential has prompted accelerated growth. Accessing this supply will require considerable investment to strategically deploy transmission infrastructure as a conduit for clean energy. America’s power needs have historically been met by fossil fuels that are easily transported as commodities. Coal is shipped across the country by rail, and natural gas flows through pipelines. Fuel transportation can occur before generation, so these dirty fuel sources do not depend on transmission.
As a result, generation has historically been built comparatively closer to where consumers need power. In contrast, the best sites for solar, wind and geothermal need transmission lines to move the energy they produce, often from remote locations. Our existing paradigm for transmission expansion is insufficient to meet this daunting challenge. The grid has not kept pace with this rapid rate of change. In fact, it is already behind. Backlogged interconnection queues hold more than 1TW of clean energy in limbo, awaiting sufficient transmission before it can be delivered to consumers. That’s nearly 95 percent of the estimated power the Department of Energy anticipates we will need to reach 2035 decarbonization targets. In some regions, electricity prices have even gone negative due to insufficient transmission capacity. The current failure to build transmission creates bottlenecks and disparities across the country. It keeps costs higher for consumers, leaves them tied to commodity prices, and hinders our chance of building a clean energy grid.
Transmission is the crucial bond linking clean power directly to American homes and industry. A sunswept field in the southwest cannot be teleported closer to coastal cities where power is in high demand, and no feat of engineering can relocate the windy expanse of the Midwest’s Great Plains. Without building a grid that meets renewables at the point of generation, these clean energy resources will remain stranded, and the American economy will continue burning gas and coal as the global thermometer rises. Transmission presents a win-win solution, allowing us to meet the demands of the energy transition while increasing energy independence and lowering electricity costs for consumers.
Looking ahead to the 118th Congress, enacting transmission-enabling policy will let legislators reap additional benefits from the climate policies and bipartisan infrastructure bills they have already passed. Without addressing resilience requirements or regulatory reforms that allow for expansion, these advances will be hollow victories for the climate. Huge turbines in the windswept plains and solar farms in the desert won’t decarbonize anything if new interregional transmission doesn’t bring power to the populations that most urgently need it. Transmission is the missing piece, it’s time for Congress to complete the decarbonization puzzle.