This little-known bottleneck is blocking clean energy for millions

This little-known bottleneck is blocking clean energy for millions


Meeting the US goal of diverting 80% of the country’s electricity from fossil fuels by the end of the decade will require a massive transformation. That means solar farms dotting the landscape from California to New York; offshore wind turbines towering over the waves off the coast of New Jersey; steam-emitting nuclear power plants in rural areas. Together, these projects are expected to add approximately 950 gigawatts of new clean energy and 225 gigawatts of energy storage to the grid.

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

They just can’t connect to the network.

These roadblocks known as “interconnection queues” are slowing America’s energy transition and the country’s ability to respond to climate change.

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

To understand the lines blocking U.S. progress on climate change, one must first understand a little about how the electrical grid works. It’s easier to think of the network – which carries electrons – like the country’s roads carrying cars.

The electrons are produced by a power station, sent to a substation (those large systems of criss-crossing wires and transformers often near a major city center), then connected to huge high-voltage transmission lines that transport electricity across the country. Transmission lines carry electrons long distances across the country, much like interstate highways. These electrons then pass into the “distribution” system, which is much like the little side streets, highways, and roads that lead to individual homes and businesses.

When an energy developer wants to build a new power plant, they must submit an application to see how adding that facility will affect the grid – much like trying to build an on-ramp onto a major interstate highway. , according to Joe Rand, Associate Principal Engineer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Regional authorities must check that the motorway can accommodate a new on-ramp without causing traffic jams. In the same way that an authority could ask the road builder to pay for the construction of the slip road – or, if the motorway is really already congested, to pay to add an extra lane — regional authorities are asking energy developers to pay to connect their solar or wind farms to the grid.

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Get the right to connect has become increasingly difficult. According to Rand’s research, between 2000 and 2010, it took about two years for a project to move through the queue. Now it takes almost twice as long. At the end of 2021, there were 8,100 projects on hold, waiting for permission to connect. Together, they represent more than the combined electrical capacity of all US power plants.

And 93% of these projects are solar, wind or battery storage. One forwarding authority, PJM — which covers Pennsylvania, West Virginia, DC and other parts of the east coast — accounts for nearly a third of the delays.

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

Part of the reason for the backlog is that clean energy is booming. In the past, most grid-connected power plants were coal or natural gas – large, fairly centralized power plants that had a defined way of connecting to the larger grid. But now, with the rapid increase in wind and solar energy, different types of projects are trying to connect to it, and they are much more widely dispersed across the landscape.

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

At the same time, the country’s high-voltage transmission lines — again, much like a bunch of interstate highways — are nearly at capacity, jammed 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 transmission is blocked, developers may have to pay more money to get their connection to the network. This can cause a developer to rethink their plan or completely cancel their wind, solar or geothermal plant.

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Rand, a researcher at Berkeley Laboratory, says not all projects that enter the queue are eventually built. Developers may decide to focus on other projects or try to obtain permits later. But, he added, projects that pull out of the queue “have considerably higher interconnection costs” indicating that some wind and solar parks may not be built because it is too expensive to connect to the network. In one study, Rand and a team of Berkeley Lab researchers found that connecting a wind farm to the grid between 2019 and 2021 in parts of the Midwest and Canada costs about double what it cost in 2000. to 2018.

Some experts and developers have offered solutions. Gahl says part of the problem can be solved simply by making more data available to developers about network connection costs in different locations. Right now, many companies are launching lots of apps, hoping one sticks around.

“When a developer comes into the process, they sort of go blindfolded,” he added.

Changing the order in which transport authorities receive and handle applications could also speed up approvals. Most of the time, the queues operate on a “first come, first served” basis, which means that they evaluate projects in the order in which they are received. But some regional authorities are already planning to move to a “first ready, first served” model, where proposals for wind, solar and other power plants are bundled into groups and then approved in batches.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — the agency that regulates transmission across the United States — also plans to create a new rule that it says will help streamline the process.

But experts say the United States must radically expand transmission lines – which now stretch 700,000 miles across the country – to accelerate the energy transition. Scientists estimate that transmission will need to increase by 25% over the decade to meet US climate goals.

This 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 pours into renewable energy development, these transmission lines have fallen behind. “If you look over the last decade, you actually see fewer miles of high-voltage transmission construction per year than in the past,” Rand said. “This trendline is going in the wrong direction.”

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