America is deep into a campaign to make renewable energy the principle source of electricity for the entire country. Doing so is essential to lowering the amount of carbon dioxide being added to the atmosphere every year by generating plants powered by fossil fuels — primarily coal and natural gas. Here at CleanTechnica, we are bombarded daily with press releases trumpeting new wind and solar developments all across the country and offshore.
According to the Washington Post, there are at least 930 gigawatts of clean energy capacity and 420 gigawatts of storage waiting to be built in America today. In an interview with Energy Wire, Becca Jones-Albertus, the director of the Energy Department’s Solar Energy Technologies Office, says enthusiastically that within a few years, most of the solar panels America will need to reach its clean energy goals will be manufactured domestically, thanks to the huge policy push and incentives embodied in the Inflation Reduction Act.
There’s only one problem. Most of those pending renewable energy and battery storage products can’t get connected to the electrical grid, so they aren’t getting built fast enough. No one is going to buy all those American-made solar panels if those projects are put on hold or cancelled.
“It’s a huge problem,” David Gahl, executive director of the Solar and Storage Industries Institute, tells the Washington Post. “If we don’t make changes, we’re not going to meet state and federal targets for climate change.”
Renewable Energy & The Grid
Think of electrons as cars and the grid as the nation’s interstate highways, the Post says. They are produced by a power plant, sent to a substation, and then connected to high voltage transmission lines that are like highways, carrying those electrons all across the country. They then pass into the distribution system, which is much like the smaller side streets, expressways, and roads that lead to individual homes and businesses.
When an energy developer wants to build a new power plant, the Post says, they have to submit an application to see how adding that facility will affect the grid. Think of its as building a new on-ramp onto a big interstate highway, says Joe Rand, a senior engineering associate at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Regional authorities have to check to make sure that the highway can accommodate it without causing traffic pileups. The road builder might be asked to pay for the construction of the on-ramp or, if the highway is heavily congested already, to pay to add an extra lane. Often, regional energy authorities ask renewable energy developers to pay to connect their solar or wind farms to the grid.
Getting the okay to connect has gotten harder and harder. According to Rand’s research, between 2000 and 2010 it took around two years for a project to get approved. Now, it’s taking almost twice as long. At the end of 2021, there were 8,100 projects in that queue, waiting for permission to get connected. Together, they represent more than the combined power capacity of all U.S. electricity plants. What that means is, the ability to transition to renewable energy — the Biden administration wants the US to have 80% zero emissions electricity by 2030 — is already within reach. But we can’t get there because the grid can’t handle the influx of new solar and wind power.
Electricity As A One Way Street
The grid was built at a time when electricity came from large generating stations, whether powered by oil, coal, natural gas, or nuclear. It was essentially a one way street — energy got fed in from the power plants and was then distributed to local customers. No one ever imagined hundreds if not thousands of smaller energy suppliers adding power to the grid from all over the country. “The system just wasn’t built to handle this kind of volume,” Gahl says.
Adding to the problem, America’s high voltage transmission lines are almost at full capacity. “Limited transmission capacity is really the root cause,” Rob Gramlich, president of Grid Strategies, tells the Post. That means a developer may have to pay more money to get their projects connected to the grid, which may cause it to rethink the plan or even cancel a wind, solar, or geothermal project.
Joe Rand says that not all projects that enter the queue ultimately get built. Developers may decide to focus on other projects or try to get permits later on. But, he added, the projects that withdraw from the queue “have drastically higher interconnection costs.” In one study, Rand and a team of researchers from Berkeley Lab found that connecting a wind farm to the grid between 2019 and 2021 in some areas of the Midwest and Canada cost nearly double what it did from 2000 to 2018.
David Gahl says the way the connection process works today may make things worse. Knowing how chaotic the system is, many companies put a lot of applications in, hoping one will stick. That puts an extra burden on grid administrators and slows the process down even further.
Changing the order in which transmission authorities receive and manage applications could speed up approvals. Most of the time, the queues operate on a “first come, first served” basis, but some regional authorities plan to shift to a “first ready, first served” model, where wind, solar, and other power plant proposals are clustered into groups and then approved in batches.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission also plans to create a new rule that it says will help streamline the process. FERC says “this approach seeks to streamline and modernize the interconnection process by focusing on three key areas: (1) implementing a first-ready, first-served cluster study process; (2) increasing the speed of interconnection queue processing; and (3) incorporating technological advancements into the interconnection process.”
But experts tell the Post the United States needs to radically expand transmission lines — there are currently 700,000 miles of them all across the country — to accelerate the energy transition. They estimate that transmission capacity will have to increase 25 percent over the course of the decade to meet U.S. climate goals. If that happens, it will make it easier and cheaper for new projects to connect to the grid, and for all the country’s electricity to get to where it needs to go. “If you look over the past decade, you’re actually seeing fewer miles of high voltage transmission builds per year than we used to in the past,” Joe Rand says. “That trend line is going in the wrong direction.”
Joe Rand may be correct. America may need more high voltage transmission lines. But might there be another solution? What if everyone is looking through the wrong end of the telescope and the answer is not more transmission lines walking across the landscape as far as the eye can see but more localized energy grids that make electricity where it is needed and distribute it to energy customers nearby?
One of the advantages of the traditional approach is that most of those large generating stations have been built in remote areas out of sight of the larger community. Wires bring the electrons to our homes and businesses, we get a bill from the utility company every month, and that’s it. But what if instead of importing electricity from hundreds or thousands of miles away, we made the majority of it close to where it is consumed?
Maybe the answer isn’t to build more transmission lines. Maybe the answer is to change our thinking about grids from the days when Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse were feuding over AC vs. DC — the hub and spoke concept — and start thinking of them as a collection of microgrids, serving local communities with electrical energy made and distributed locally?
Right now this very minute, millions of Americans are without power thanks to a powerful blizzard, often because transmission lines have failed. But some are less affected than others because they have rooftop solar and an electric vehicle with a big battery that can supply essential power for as long as the sun shines. The solution to many of our grid problems may be right under our noses. We just have to adjust our thinking to imagine a new paradigm where most of us make our own power.
The utility companies won’t like that very much, but as Socrates said 3000 years ago, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new.” Power to the people!
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