This little-known bottleneck is blocking clean energy for millions


To achieve the United States goal of switch 80 percent of the country’s electricity away from fossil fuels by the end of the decade, there will have to be a massive transformation. That means solar farms dotting the landscape from California to New York; offshore wind turbines rising above the waves off the New Jersey shoreline; steam-emitting nuclear power plants in rural areas. Together, these projects should add up to around 950 gigawatts of new clean energy and 225 gigawatts of energy storage to the grid.

And right now, projects that represent at least 930 gigawatts of clean energy capacity and 420 gigawatts of storage are expected to be built across the country.

They just can’t connect to the network.

These obstacles known as “Interconnection Queues”: They are slowing America’s energy transition and the country’s ability to respond to climate change.

“It’s a big problem,” said David Gahl, executive director of the Institute for Solar and Storage Industries, a research group affiliated with the solar industry. “If we don’t make changes, we’re not going to meet the state and federal goals for climate change.”

To understand the lines blocking US progress on climate change, you first need to understand a bit about how the power grid works. It’s easier to think of the grid, which carries electrons, like country highways carrying cars.

The electrons are produced by a power plant, sent to a substation (those large systems of interlocking cables and transformers often near the center of a large city), and then connected to huge high-voltage transmission lines that carry power around the globe. country. Transmission lines carry electrons long distances across the country, just like interstate highways. Those electrons then go into the “distribution” system, which is much like the back streets, highways, and smaller roads that lead to individual homes and businesses.

When a power developer wants to build a new power plant, they need to submit an application to see how adding that facility will affect the grid, sort of like trying to build an on-ramp to a large interstate highway, according to Joe Rand, a senior associate engineer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Regional authorities have to check to make sure the road can accommodate a new entrance ramp without causing traffic jams. In the same way that an authority might ask the road builder to pay for the construction of the access road or, if the road is For real Already congested, pay to add an extra lane: Regional authorities are asking power developers to pay to connect their solar or wind farms to the grid.

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Get authorization to connect has become increasingly difficult. According to Rand’s research, between 2000 and 2010, it took about two years for a project to get past the tail. Now, it’s taking almost twice as long. At the end of 2021, there were 8,100 projects in line, waiting for permission to go online. Together, they represent more than the combined power capacity of all US power plants.

And 93 percent of those projects are solar, wind or battery storage. One broadcast authority, PJM, which covers Pennsylvania, West Virginia, DC and other areas on the East Coast, accounts for almost a third of the delays.

Asked about the matter, PJM spokeswoman Susan Buehler said the authority has recently improved its process, and that the changes will reduce the delay

Part of the reason for the delay is that clean energy is booming. In the past, most grid-connected power plants were either coal-fired or natural gas-fired—large, fairly centralized power plants that had an established way of connecting to the larger grid. But now, with the rapid rise of wind and solar power, there are different types of projects trying to connect to and they are much more scattered across the landscape.

“The system just wasn’t built to handle this kind of volume,” Gahl said.

At the same time, the country’s high-voltage transmission lines—again, a bit like a bunch of interstate highways—are near full capacity, clogged with tons of electron traffic. “Limited transmission capacity is really the root cause,” said Rob Gramlich, president and founder of consulting group Grid Strategies. When streaming is interrupted, developers may have to pay more money to get your connection to the network. That can cause a developer to reconsider their plan, or potentially cancel their wind, solar or geothermal plant altogether.

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Rand, the Berkeley Lab researcher, says that not all projects that enter the queue eventually get built. Developers may decide to focus on other projects or try to get permissions later. But, he added, the projects that are dequeued “have drastically higher interconnection costs” indicating that some wind and solar farms may not get built because they cost too much to connect to the network. In one to studyRand and a team of Berkeley Lab researchers found that connecting a wind farm to the grid between 2019 and 2021 in areas of the Midwest and Canada cost about twice as much as between 2000 and 2018.

Some experts and developers have offered solutions. Gahl says that part of the problem can be solved simply by making more data available to developers about the costs of connecting to the network in different locations. Right now, many companies release many applications, hoping that one will stick.

“When a developer enters the process, they do it blindfolded,” he added.

Changing the order in which transmission authorities receive and manage applications could also speed up approvals. Most of the time, queues work on a “first come, first served” basis, which means they evaluate projects in the order they were received. But Some Regional authorities already plan to switch to a “first done, first served” model, where proposals for wind, solar and other power plants are grouped into groups and then approved in batches.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency that regulates transmission in the United States, also plans to create a new rule which he says will help expedite the process.

But experts say the United States needs to radically expand transmission lines, which now span 700,000 miles throughout the country, to accelerate the energy transition. Scientists estimate that transmission will have to increase 25 percent over the course of the decade to meet US climate goals.

That will make it easier and cheaper for new projects to connect to the grid and for all of the country’s electricity to get where it needs to go.

Even As money flows into renewable energy development, those transmission lines have been left behind. “If you look at the last decade, you’re actually seeing fewer miles of high-voltage transmission construction per year than we used to see in the past,” Rand said. “That trend line is going in the wrong direction.”

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