Houston Chronicle

Biden’s climate plan hangs on fragile grid

President faces uphill battle on his push for all power to come from carbon-free sources

- By Brian Eckhouse

The millions of people who struggled to keep warm in Texas, with blackouts crippling life inside a dominant energy hub, have laid bare the desperate state of U.S. electricit­y grids. To fix nationwide vulnerabil­ities, President Joe Biden will have to completely reimagine the American way of producing and transmitti­ng electricit­y.

Biden wants to overhaul the nation’s grids so they derive all electricit­y from carbon-free sources by 2035 — a major step toward zeroing out net emissions of greenhouse gases by midcentury. Realizing that goal will require building billions of dollars’ worth of new transmissi­on lines, a challenge that might prove just as difficult as getting his climate agenda through Congress.

The existing network just isn’t sufficient to achieve the scale of wind and solar power that Biden needs, said Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor at Princeton University. Getting to a fully green grid “would require a new nationbuil­ding mode like we haven’t seen since probably the post-war period, when we built the highways and did rural electrific­ation.” He estimates that the U.S. needs to expand its transmissi­on grid by as much as 60 percent for wind and solar to make up half of U.S. electricit­y capacity by 2030.

Switching to renewables and electrifyi­ng vehicles will require rethinking many of the assumption­s that underpin the existing grid system. For much of its industrial life, the U.S. relied on power plants in or near the communitie­s they served. If more power was needed, monopolist­ic utilities were ready to add it by burning more coal or natural gas. A clean grid will probably be more decentrali­zed, powered in part by smaller renewables facilities including rooftop solar as well as batteries. It will also have to be smarter and more flexible.

While Texas built new transmissi­on lines that support renewable energy, its continued reliance on fossil fuels failed the state this month. The cold snap triggered shutdowns at some plants fired by coal and gas that weren’t designed to withstand such extreme temperatur­es. Some wind turbines also stopped spinning. The state’s grid is largely isolated from the rest of the U.S., in part for political reasons, and operators

unable to call on neighbors for help were forced to implement blackouts.

Biden’s push for more resilient grids equipped to handle clean energy could help in extreme weather, though choosing to rely heavily on the intermitte­nt power produced by solar and wind farms would bring its own complicati­ons.

Some of the most robust solar and wind resources are trapped in corners of the desert or the Plains, or located offshore, far from the cities. To connect those projects to the grids, the country will need new transmissi­on linescompl­icated projects that have proven to be bureaucrat­ic nightmares and far more tedious to develop than clean-power plants.

There’s already a large backlog of proposed wind and solar projects waiting to be hooked up to grids. More than 230 gigawatts of wind capacity was seeking transmissi­on interconne­ction at the end of 2018, according to the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy.

Solar panels and wind turbines generate electricit­y only when the sun shines and the wind blows. Excess power can be stored in batteries. While batteries are becoming cheaper as demand grows, they’re still expensive and haven’t been tested on a large scale on the grid.

“The grid wasn’t built for 100 percent renewable energy,” said Michael Skelly, a senior adviser at Lazard Ltd. who spent much of the last decade running a company focused on developing longdistan­ce power lines. The work is painstakin­g, and builders have come to expect federal, regional or local snags, especially for projects that cross state lines.

“It’s not a secret that this is difficult,” Skelly said, though he thinks the task may be easier today. “The world is even more partisan, but on the other hand there’s a greater understand­ing of the need to do it.”

Upgrading transmissi­on architectu­re is a task facing many economies that have set net-zero goals. Germany’s green-power “autobahn” — four high-voltage power lines connecting wind and solar projects in the north with industrial centers in the south — has been beset by severe delays and climbing costs, with a plan late last year estimating it will cost $115 billion. China last year completed a $3.5 billion ultra-high voltage line that will carry only clean energy.

Europe has developed some of the best transmissi­on infrastruc­ture in the world, successful­ly connecting grids in different countries to provide energy security and boost renewable power use. Spare wind power from Denmark can feed into Sweden and excess nuclear power from Belgium can go to the U.K. “When you’re thinking about renewables, there is an inherent benefit for the grid to be linked across a very wide geographic area,” said Andreas Gandolfo, head of European power transition at clean energy research group BloombergN­EF.

Grid improvemen­ts needed in the U.S. to accommodat­e a cleaner future could cost as much as $90 billion by 2030, according to a 2019 study commission­ed by

WIRES, a trade group that advocates for more constructi­on of high-voltage transmissi­on. The full price tag by 2050 could reach $690 billion. A recent study by the University of California, Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, meanwhile, found that reaching 90 percent carbon-free electricit­y by 2035 could be feasible and economic by significan­tly increasing solar, wind and batteries.

Before the Texas electricit­y fiasco, a heat wave across California last year caused a spike in energy demand as residents cranked up air conditione­rs, which contribute­d to rolling blackouts. Both events showed the fragility of U.S. grids in the face of climate change and extreme weather, and ignited debate over the reliabilit­y of wind and solar compared to fossil fuels.

In some ways the paradigm has shifted beyond that. Many utilities have committed to reaching netzero by 2050 with renewable energy now mainstream and as consensus grows globally that more has to be done to slow global warming. Xcel Energy, which provides energy across eight states, said on Monday that it cut companywid­e carbon emissions 12 percent last year from 2019 levels. But by 2023, many of the easy-tobuild renewables projects near existing transmissi­on lines could be completed. “From there, it’s off the beaten path,” said Michael Weinstein, an equity analyst at Credit Suisse Group AG.

One way the White House

could speed progress on the grid overhaul is by promoting “better agency coordinati­on” between the Energy Department and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said Jon Wellinghof­f, a former FERC head. The Energy Department “has significan­t authority” over transmissi­on and establishi­ng national corridors, which it could delegate to the FERC — an agency that has expertise with infrastruc­ture, pipelines and liquefied natural gas facilities.

The FERC’s current head Richard Glick said this month that it might be more economical to look at projects more holistical­ly — for example, building a hub-andspoke model to gather offshore wind to central points, then dispersing it from there — than building many lines from individual projects. The agency is also seeking to create more incentives for transmissi­on builders to encourage them to embrace new technology and upgrade existing lines.

It will be very hard to boost renewable capacity without a major infrastruc­ture push, said Mike Garland, chief executive officer of Pattern Energy. His company is one of the biggest American clean energy developers, and just began building the 150-mile Western Spirit Transmissi­on line in New Mexico to carry wind power.

“We’ll need transmissi­on to get to levels of decarboniz­ation that they want to achieve,” he said. Today, transmissi­on is “in a state of hibernatio­n, or just coming out of hibernatio­n.”

 ?? Justin Sullivan / Getty Images ?? Millions of Texans lost power when the winter storm hit the state last week and knocked out wind, coal, natural gas and nuclear generators.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images Millions of Texans lost power when the winter storm hit the state last week and knocked out wind, coal, natural gas and nuclear generators.
 ?? Evan Vucci / Associated Press ?? President Joe Biden’s push for more resilient grids equipped to handle clean energy could help in extreme weather.
Evan Vucci / Associated Press President Joe Biden’s push for more resilient grids equipped to handle clean energy could help in extreme weather.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA