Democrats hope to juice permitting talks with transmission bill

September 22, 2023

Extreme weather events are only becoming more frequent and severe, and we need to better prepare for the impacts. Congressman Peters co-introduced the BIG WIRES Act to expand our transmission lines, lower energy costs, and shore up American energy security & independence.

Read more about it in this September 15th piece from the Washington Post, posted below:

Democrats hope to juice permitting talks with transmission bill

By Maxine Joselow and Vanessa Montalbano

September 12, 2023

Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) and Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) today will introduce long-awaited legislation to spur the nation’s buildout of interregional transmission lines, according to bill text shared first with The Climate 202.

The Building Integrated Grids with Interregional Energy Supply Act — or the Big Wires Act for short — aims to accelerate America’s transition to cleaner energy while strengthening its strained electric grid.

In May, a discussion draft of the Big Wires Act was almost included in a deal to raise the debt ceiling. But the language was ultimately dropped from the debt ceiling deal because of concerns from Republican leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who said they needed more time to review it.

Peters, a former environmental lawyer, said he is now working to build GOP support and reignite the stalled negotiations over overhauling the nation’s permitting process for energy projects.

“I’m sorry that it didn’t make it into the debt ceiling deal,” Peters said in an interview in his office. “I take the Republicans in good faith that they weren’t ready to do that. But it’s time for us to have that discussion.”

The bill comes as fears of a government shutdown intensify on Capitol Hill, with just nine working days until the Sept. 30 deadline when funding expires. Peters acknowledged that the measure “probably won’t be top of mind this month” but said it could juice permitting talks later this fall.

Energy experts say thousands of miles of long-distance power lines are needed to carry clean electricity from far-flung wind and solar farms to urban centers. The construction of transmission lines is therefore crucial to realizing the benefits of President Biden’s signature climate law.

According to an analysis by Princeton University, the Inflation Reduction Act could cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by about 6.3 billion tons over the next decade. But that outcome depends on more than doubling the historical pace of building transmission infrastructure, the analysis found.

The details

The Big Wires Act would not explicitly mandate the construction of more transmission lines. Rather, it would indirectly spur their construction by requiring regions of the country to be able to transfer electricity between their power networks during times of stress on the grid.

  • In particular, the bill would require regions to be able to transfer 30 percent of their peak electrical loads to neighboring regions.
  • That could help prevent disasters like the widespread power outages in Texas in 2021, when a winter storm hobbled the state’s isolated grid and killed nearly 250 people.

The bill will help “build a power grid fit for the 21st century,” Hickenlooper said in a statement.

When the discussion draft was unveiled in May, some monopoly utilities in the South warned that the 30 percent mandate would be onerous. In response, the Democrats tweaked the bill so that no region is required to increase its transfer capacity by more than 15 percent of its peak load.

It remains to be seen whether the change will appease Southern utilities or get more Republicans on board.

  • Spokespeople for Southern Company and Duke Energy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
  • Sean Kelly, a spokesman for Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the panel does not have any immediate plans to hold a hearing on the bill.

“We hear a lot from our colleagues on the left only about interstate transmission for our electric grid,” Kelly said in an email. “However, transmission is not a substitute for generation. Our hearings will continue to focus on solutions the American people need to be protected from the Biden administration’s continued attacks on 24/7 dispatchable generation and a reliable energy grid.”

Broader permitting talks

Peters and Hickenlooper are not the only lawmakers focused on permitting, despite the looming threat of a shutdown. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the top Republican on the panel, met yesterday to discuss a possible permitting deal.

“We are in agreement that we must act to accelerate our permitting system and are committed to reaching a bipartisan solution that prioritizes American energy security, reliability and affordability,” Manchin and Barrasso said in a joint statement yesterday after the meeting.

Barrasso added in a brief interview before the meeting that he was “optimistic” about the negotiations, giving a thumbs up as he boarded the Senate subway.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), one of the most vocal climate advocates in the Senate, suggested he would only vote for a permitting package that includes transmission language.

“We have to do something for transmission; we have to make it easier to build clean energy,” Schatz told The Climate 202. “And we are not going to enact the American Petroleum Institute’s wish list and call it permitting reform.”

Yet in the divided Congress, any permitting deal will probably be a compromise between Democrats, who generally want transmission provisions, and Republicans, who generally want language that limits litigation over fossil fuel projects.

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), another climate hawk, said he is willing to entertain some trade-offs.

“Everything around here is going to be a compromise in this environment,” Heinrich said. “You just have to figure out what a good deal looks like and accept that you’re not going to get the perfect right now.”



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