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Energy Dept. Aims to Speed Up Permits for Power Lines

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The Biden administration on Thursday finalized a rule meant to speed up federal permits for major transmission lines, part of a broader push to expand America’s electric grids.

Administration officials are increasingly worried that their plans to fight climate change could falter unless the nation can quickly add vast amounts of grid capacity to handle more wind and solar power and to better tolerate extreme weather. The pace of construction for high-voltage power lines has sharply slowed since 2013, and building new lines can take a decade or more because of permitting delays and local opposition.

The Energy Department is trying to use the limited tools at its disposal to pour roughly $20 billion into grid upgrades and to streamline approvals for new lines. But experts say a rapid, large-scale grid expansion may ultimately depend on Congress.

Under the rule announced on Thursday, the Energy Department would take over as the lead agency in charge of federal environmental reviews for certain interstate power lines and would aim to issue necessary permits within two years. Currently, the federal approval process can take four years or more and often involves multiple agencies each conducting their own separate reviews.

“We need to build new transmission projects more quickly, as everybody knows,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said. The new reforms are “a huge improvement from the status quo, where developers routinely have to navigate several independent permitting processes throughout the federal government.”

The permitting changes would only affect lines that require federal review, like those that cross federally owned land. Such projects made up 26 percent of all transmission line miles added between 2010 and 2020. To qualify, developers would need to create a plan to engage with the public much earlier in the process.

Experts said the change could be significant for power lines in the West, where the federal government owns nearly half the land and permitting can be arduous. It took developers 17 years to win approval for one major line, known as SunZia, that was designed to connect an enormous wind farm in New Mexico to homes and businesses in Arizona and California.

“Federal permitting isn’t the only thing holding back transmission, but if they can cut times down by even a year, and if we have fewer projects that take a decade or more, that’s a big win,” said Megan Gibson, the chief counsel at the Niskanen Center, a research organization that recently conducted two studies on federal transmission permitting.

The rule would not affect state environmental reviews, which can sometimes be an even bigger hurdle to transmission developers who are facing complaints and lawsuits over spoiled views and damage to ecosystems.

Other changes to grid policy could soon be on the way.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees electricity markets, is expected in May to finalize a major rule that would encourage utilities and grid operators to do more long-term transmission planning, something that is relatively rare today. Depending on how the rule is written, it could also help resolve disputes between states over who should pay for costly new transmission lines — which is often the biggest sticking point for many projects.

“I’ve called that rule the biggest energy policy in the country,” said Rob Gramlich, the president of the consulting group Grid Strategies. “Figuring out who should pay for transmission has always been the hardest part.”

Separately, the Department of Energy is trying to help utilities squeeze more capacity out of the existing grid. That includes “grid-enhancing technologies” such as sensors that allow energy companies to send more power through existing lines without overloading them and advanced controls that allow operators to ease congestion on the grid. It also includes replacing existing lines with advanced conductors, which can potentially double capacity along existing routes. The Energy Department is currently offering $3.9 billion in funding that could go toward these and other solutions.

Many of these technologies could be deployed in just a few years, agency officials said in a recent report on grid modernization, buying time for developers to construct the larger transmission lines that would be needed in the future.

Congress has also given federal regulators the authority to override objections from states for certain power lines deemed to be in the national interest, a potentially contentious move. The Biden administration has yet to wield this power, though it is working to identify potential sites that could qualify.

“We’ve been trying to maximize every nook and cranny of what we can do right now,” said Maria Robinson, head of the Energy Department’s Grid Deployment Office.

Still, experts say, there is only so much the administration can do to expand the grid without help from Congress. To date, lawmakers have struggled to agree on ways to reform the system.

In the House and Senate, Democrats have proposed various bills that would mandate greater grid connectivity between regions or place more permitting authority in the hands of federal regulators. But some utilities and Republicans have criticized those proposals as taking control away from states.

Elsewhere, energy companies have asked Congress to enact permitting reforms that would set stricter time limits on challenges and lawsuits from opponents of new projects. But environmentalists are wary that those changes could also benefit fossil fuel projects such as pipelines.

At a recent conference in New York, David Crane, the under secretary for infrastructure at the Energy Department, said that if he could “wave a magic wand” he would ask Congress for permitting reform to advance renewable energy and transmission projects.

“I would say to people on the left who oppose permitting reform because they think it will lead to more unmitigated fossil-fuel-fired infrastructure, at this point it seems very clear from my vantage point that without permitting reform, what we are hindering is new zero-carbon energy sources,” he said.

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