We must reject the false choice between quickly ramping up transmission and protecting communities from harmful permitting decisions.
We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create the new clean energy economy that is essential to stabilize the climate. Both the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act (IIJA) give a huge boost to clean energy development and deployment and dramatically buy down the cost of reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by at least half over the next seven years. But we must do much more to realize the IRA’s promise to build the clean energy infrastructure we need.
There is no question that we need more transmission to meet our climate goals, and that new policies and practices are required to support this buildout. Right now, we have roughly a terawatt of renewable energy trying to connect to the grid to power our homes, offices and cars, and transmission constraints and interconnection roadblocks stand in the way
We urgently need policy reform. But we must reject the false choice between quickly ramping up transmission and protecting communities from harmful permitting decisions. Urgency cannot become a pretext for gutting requirements for environmental review and public engagement as we embark on the greatest U.S. infrastructure build-out in nearly a century. We need administrative and congressional action to do this right. Many failed proposals, including Senator Manchin’s Building American Energy Security Act of 2022, would do more to incentivize fossil fuels and sacrifice frontline communities. There is a better way.
This country’s infrastructure is a result of decision-making that has historically excluded communities of color and low-income communities, forcing them to bear the burdens of harmful projects in their backyards without reaping the benefits. We must do it differently this time. We can invest in holistic and thoughtful planning and public input that centers people’s wellbeing. Given all the new infrastructure that is needed, there is no prudent or affordable way to proceed without a smart blueprint and the upfront engagement that is essential to get big projects approved and built expeditiously.
Research and our own experience at Earthjustice show that when you build consensus and allow for input at the front end, you can build better and faster. A 2022 MIT study, which examined 53 large-scale clean energy projects that were delayed or canceled, concluded that “early engagement with potential local opponents can avoid extended delays or project cancellations.” For example, in Maryland robust, upfront engagement was key to securing both approval for 1654 MW of offshore wind (projects that can power a million homes) and commitments to ensure that the projects are constructed and operated in a responsible manner.
Permitting processes that include thorough, upfront engagement can actually speed up the transmission build-out and ensure that we are developing in a way that does not cause undue harm to communities, sensitive ecosystems, and cultural resources. Now more than ever, we need strong environmental review and public engagement processes to avoid harming communities while effectively speeding up development of much-needed infrastructure to enable a rapid clean energy transition.
How we get there
The IRA has put us on track for transformative investments in clean energy, but barriers remain. President Biden can and must meet this moment by championing clean energy transition while also delivering on his environmental justice promises. Congress can also pass meaningful legislation that scales up clean energy leaving no community behind.
To realize the promise of the investments in transmission in the IRA and the IIJA, we need a blueprint to help facilitate the essential development of interstate transmission to support a 100% clean electricity grid while protecting communities’ health and the environment.
The Principles for Accelerating Clean Energy Deployment Through a Transmission Buildout in an Equitable Clean Energy Future (Transmission Principles), drafted with key with partners, provides a suite of recommendations that the Biden administration, FERC, and Congress can implement to help clear current transmission planning, siting and cost allocation barriers.
Starting now, the Biden administration and FERC can get us a very long way.
- FERC must put strong rules in place to address transmission bottlenecks. FERC can address planning, cost allocation, and interconnection barriers to building out the transmission required for a clean energy grid. FERC has two rulemakings already underway and a third expected to address interregional transmission planning process. These processes must result in strong final rules that ensure grid operators:
- Identify and address transmission needs to meet future energy demands;
- Keep costs down and maximize benefits to consumers;
- Offer meaningful opportunities for affected communities to engage;
- Bring stakeholders together to identify and resolve the cost allocation issues that have plagued many projects; and
- Speed up the interconnection process.
FERC also should establish environmental justice liaisons to support robust consultation and advanced planning with environmental justice communities and tribal nations.
- Thanks to the IRA and the IIJA, the Department of Energy (DOE) has the resources and the mandate to identify new national interest transmission corridors where Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has backstop authority to require siting over local and state objections. DOE needs to undertake the designation of those corridors with care, investing in upfront coordination with Tribes, communities, and other relevant stakeholders. Through this process, DOE and FERC can ensure that new corridors and siting avoid harm to sensitive areas and sacred lands.
Thanks to resources through the IRA, the Biden administration can and should do the following:
- The administration can now resource agencies to complete environmental reviews to expedite the permitting processes. Leveraging the $1 billion in IRA investments will fund the agencies responsible for siting and permitting. NEPA review has historically been understaffed and starved of necessary resources. These funds will allow agencies to get meaningful, legally compliant reviews done faster, expediting permitting and leading to better, more equitable outcomes. We need cross-agency coordination to adequately address a build-out of this scale. Congress specifically allocated funds in the IRA to the Department of Energy (DOE), Interior (DOI), the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to facilitate timely and efficient environmental reviews. We have significant funding and financing capacity for transmission development within the IIJA and the IRA. Together, these investments can facilitate large-scale transmission development, including public-private partnerships where DOE can serve as an “anchor-tenant” for new or upgraded transmission lines and can support state transmission planning.
Congress can play a constructive role. While comprehensive and ambitious administrative action can help get us there, Congress could pass true reforms that would further speed up progress and, at the same time, ensure our clean energy transition advances environmental justice. First and foremost, passing the Environmental Justice for All Act — portions of which have already passed in the House — will strengthen community engagement and environmental protections as we embark on the greatest infrastructure build-out in nearly 80 years. Drafted with extensive community input, this legislation strengthens the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and ensures communities have a voice, which will help clean projects to get built without becoming mired in conflict and stoppages.
To support necessary administrative action and help address current constraints, Congress can and should pass new legislation:
- The CHARGE Act of 2022, introduced in the Senate in March, addresses fundamental electricity grid reforms that would speed necessary energy and transmission development, while also prioritizing due process for frontline communities and consumer affordability. It requires a holistic analysis of costs and benefits that account for severe weather scenarios, grid reliability and resiliency, decarbonization goals, customer costs, and avoidance of sensitive environmental areas and cultural heritage sites, and mandates that cost allocation methodologies account for these comprehensive, system-wide benefits.
- In addition to the existing National Interest Electric Transmission Corridor process at DOE and FERC, Congress can provide a second pathway for federal siting authority at FERC. The idea with this additional pathway is to remove some of the barriers to the construction of long range, high voltage transmission lines that cross multiple states and are necessary to enable the use of renewable resources, reduce congestion, or improve grid reliability by allowing developers of such lines to obtain FERC review, though states would maintain their rights under other federal environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. Public notice, comment, and hearing opportunities, as well as tribal consent, are also essential. In its review process, FERC must provide strong protections for all impacted stakeholders, especially landowners and tribal and environmental justice communities.
We have a fleeting chance to reverse the trajectory of the climate crisis. We also have an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of our past. We can build efficiently, we can scale rapidly, and we can do so in partnership with communities that host massive new projects. A clean energy future must also be a just future. Together, President Biden and Congress can do both.
Abigail Dillen serves Earthjustice as our President, leading the organization's staff, board and supporters to advance our mission of using the courts to protect our environment and people’s health.