US transmission lines prove problematic | FT Energy Source
Transmission lines are hugely important to America’s green energy targets. But all across the country battles are being fought that are hindering their progress. And as the FT’s Amanda Chu reports, sometimes the same environmentalists that support the clean energy transition don’t support building the power lines that are required for it to take place
Produced by Alpha Grid
You can enable subtitles (captions) in the video player
We're in the midst of huge changes in the American infrastructure. To get to the electrified and decarbonised economy that America is seeking we simply need more transmission buildout to make that happen.
In some ways, you could say that it is America's Democratic system that is making this a problem.
How do you turn the Nimbys, the Not In My Back Yards, into the Yimbys, the Yes In My Back Yards, is a major challenge. There's really a bit of a battle for the heart and soul of local communities that are hosting this infrastructure.
It may not look like it but this nature reserve on the Mississippi River is a subject of a fierce and long-running battle. Local grid operators want to see the last 1.5 miles of a brand new high voltage transmission line run across it. The Cardinal-Hickory Creek project, a link that would move electricity from northern Iowa to a substation outside of Madison, Wisconsin, was first approved in 2011. It's set to replace an older transmission line and connect 17 gigawatts of much needed renewable energy to millions of homes in and around Wisconsin.
We've designed this line to be environmentally-friendly. It's a needed piece of infrastructure to get that renewable energy to where the consumer demand is. We'll have an opportunity with this line to replace those two existing lines with two new lines built to modern environmental standards for wildlife, birds. And then we'll actually put it in a better configuration, a better route that will have less land impact.
If we need new, more transmission, why are we taking down a line as well?
Look at this line. This was built back in the '50s or '60s. The analogy would be this is a two-lane highway. And because it's a lower voltage, the wires are smaller. And we're going to replace an old two-lane highway from point A to point B with a major four-lane interstate highway up there. So we'll be able to move a lot more electrons.
Local campaigners disagree. Rob Danielson runs one of the organisations that's mounted the legal challenge that's holding up the project's completion. He says building a new line is a danger to local wildlife.
I found feathers - five feathers today. I usually find more than that. I've found carcasses of birds. The birds simply do not know how to negotiate the transmission lines and this is one that has been here for 75 years. The new one would be larger and have more wires on it and add a new obstruction. Songbirds, raptors, waterfowl, you name it, they're all going to come up this river, fly hopefully around that 161 kV transmission line and work their way to points north, OK. So there could not be a more sensitive place in the United States to add additional obstructions to the flyways of animals.
Conflicts like the ones over Cardinal-Hickory Creek are of national importance.
There's an urgent need for infrastructure development in countries' infrastructure that prioritises the fight against climate change.
The US is the world's largest economy. It's the world's second largest polluter. And there is growing concern that if it does not get its energy projects built and connected to the grid, the US and the world cannot reach net zero. Joe Biden set a goal of reaching 100 per cent clean electricity by 2035. The Inflation Reduction Act unlocked billions of dollars of subsidies for clean energy projects. But without upgrades to electricity grids all around the US hitting that goal is unlikely. The fate of over 100 generation projects depends on the completion of the Cardinal-Hickory Creek line.
The fundamental problem is that objections that people might have on a small scale, on the micro level, can have a huge impact on a macro level. Because if a project is held up in a particular district or a particular county in a particular state that, for a transmission line, can stop the whole thing being built.
And there is a paradox when it comes to the nature of local opposition. Sometimes the same environmentalists that support the clean energy transition don't support building the power lines that are required for it to take place.
In the United States in particular we see a lot of local opposition to very specific projects. But we also see real support for clean energy projects in the abstract. You have, sort of, conservatives potentially being opposed to clean energy investments for their reasons, but you also have some on the left opposed to clean energy investments. So I think part of what we need to do is build this coalition because otherwise you sort of have this toxic stew of people opposing projects from the left, from the right.
The delayed completion of Cardinal-Hickory Creek has become a cautionary tale, symbolic of the urgent need to build out transmission lines if the US is to transition away from fossil fuels.
This project has been on the drawing board now for 12 years. And there's no substitute for transmission for us to get the electrons from where they're being generated to the electric consumers who ultimately need them.
It takes an average of five years to connect a new power generation project to the US grid.
If you're, you know, talking about 100 per cent clean energy by 2035 or net zero carbon emissions by 2050, transmission plays a key role in getting us there. As we electrify our cars, as we move to heat pumps, and electrification of our heating, of our buildings, we're going to need a lot more of those lines to deliver the power to customers in a reliable and affordable manner.
I don't know how to put it into context. It's a very big challenge. I mean, it's one of the biggest things that I think our nation has ever done. Maybe, you know, when we first electrified rural areas that was probably the biggest thing we'd ever done to build this big machine but...
It's the coal train. Oh, good, it's a short one.
This part of rural Wisconsin has traditionally been reliant on coal. America's complicated network of electricity grid operators has made the process of permitting and approval of large new transmission projects even more difficult.
We've been called a really balkanised electric system, which means there's a lot of different players, whether they're for-profit utilities, non-profit, co-ops, and municipals, the public power side of it, or even federal power marketing agencies that all control pieces of the electric grid. And I think that's just an evolution of our democratic, capitalistic society. And if you really just do the math between now and 2050, that's really two 10-year cycles to get a lot of transmission built, if you take Cardinal-Hickory Creek as the bellwether. So I think that's a signal to all of us that if we really want to make this energy transition, we really want to decarbonise the economy, we want to electrify the economy, we have to really work on the permitting reform because we have to get this infrastructure built. And if it takes 10 or more years, then the math just doesn't work out.
I think there's a real opportunity there for Congress to come together and just make common sense reforms. We need to redesign the engine. And so this means really political engagement on citing and permitting reform that starts at the local level, goes right up to the regional level, and to the national level.
Progressive Democrats don't want to see legislation put through that will make it easier to build oil pipelines and conservative Republicans don't want to see legislation put through that would make it easier to build transmission lines that might make Joe Biden's IRA more of a success. So, bizarrely, the idea of simplifying the permitting system and making transmission easier to be built in America is not only being attacked from the right it's being attacked from the left as well.
And with presidential elections just around the corner, transmission lines are set to become an increasingly political issue.
People are relying on the electric grid for more things and so it is going to rise in importance. So I think it'll be asked about in the presidential debates. I think it'll be written about a lot. And hopefully we can see candidates come together on some good things to do.
The locals in Wisconsin aren't convinced.
The utilities need to stop and spend the money keeping our existing transmission system in full repair and optimised to do what it's supposed to do.
As for Cardinal-Hickory Creek, the beleaguered final 1.5 miles of the transmission line face yet more delays and increased costs thanks to inflation and legal fees. Replicated across the country, stories like these raise the spectre of the US getting left behind.
It is the fact that there are so many avenues open to people that want to object... and to big projects like this and so that they can hold them up in the courts. For example, in more autocratic systems in China and beyond because things are run with more of a sense of central planning because what's said by the leading party in government is what goes - regardless of local objections there is an ability to get stuff done a lot quicker.
Washington's commitment to hitting net zero by 2050 is dependent on hundreds of local projects just like these all around the US.
You don't want to, you know, take away local communities' ability to participate in the process, you don't want to ignore legitimate environmental concerns, but I think there is a balance that can be had there.
Reconciling local voices with the sweeping and increasingly urgent aims of America's clean energy revolution isn't going to be easy.