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The U.S. Power Grid: What’s Behind the 100% Clean Energy Goal

Updated: Jul 7, 2023


By Anna Wilk


Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash


In April of 2021 President Biden and his administration announced an ambitious goal to reach a zero carbon pollution power-sector future by 2035. While this decision came with a great deal of pride by many environmental organizations and climate resilience advocates, the question is whether it was too aspirational. Does the U.S. have the electrical grid capacity necessary to support the power supply of the nation, and are there projects in place to decarbonize this electrical grid?


In order to discuss this at greater length, it is important to first obtain an understanding of the current U.S. power grid and how it works. The combination of three different sections makes up the power grid. The Eastern and Western sections are composed of twelve unique transmission planning regions all under the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Of these, only six are full Regional Transmission Organizations meaning that they are Independent System Operators while the remaining regions in the West and Southeast are loose associations of dozens of vertically integrated utilities; these regions plan transmission lines with only their local territories in mind making the intersections of the power grid all the more complicated. The third section, which is completely isolated from the other two, is the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). ERCOT (Texas being the only state with its own electrical grid) is under its own jurisdiction. This setup is the reason why Texas’ power grid can fluctuate without affecting the rest of the country; however, this also means that Texan residents do not have the support of the other electrical grids to generate more electricity when their lights go out.


On April 21st of 2022, FERC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. This was a reform to the previous laws and regulations surrounding cost allocation and the process of introducing regional transmission projects. The difficulty in regard to renewable energy distribution is that it requires a dramatic increase in long-range transmission infrastructure accessibility and capacity as most renewable energy sources are found in geographically remote areas.


The current system relies on fossil fuels to generate electricity that is distributed throughout the power grid. As of 2019, only 17% of the electrical grid was powered by renewable sources. Of this, around 7.3% comes from wind power and 6.6% from hydropower. In 2022, that number had only risen to about 20% of the country’s total electricity. With any hope of reaching Biden’s climate goal of 100% clean electricity in the next twelve years the transmission system would need to expand by 50-90%. With more extensive electrification and economy-wide decarbonization, the transmission system would need to expand by 200-300%. To put this into perspective: all of the projects that were in the planning stages or in the process of being constructed as of April 2022 would only add up to an increase in transmission capacity of 11%. A significant enhancement of the transmission capacity would require between 1,400-10,100 miles of new high-capacity lines per year beginning in 2026. A total decarbonization of the power grid by 2035 could cost between $330 billion to $740 billion.


There are many benefits to the reduction of carbon pollution in the power sector and the elimination of reliance on fossil fuel power plants. The reduction in petroleum use will result in avoiding up to 130,000 premature deaths by 2035 which could save between $390 billion to $400 billion in avoided mortality costs. Additionally, the nation would save nearly $1.2 trillion from avoided cost of damage from floods, drought, wildfires, hurricanes and other climate disasters. While the benefits outweigh the costs, it is the sheer number of projects necessary to expand the electrical grid to levels required to sustain the overall population that is difficult to envision occurring in the timespan provided.


What are the regulations for where an alternative energy source can be positioned? What process must a company abide by prior to getting a construction project approved for a solar or wind farm? What are the environmental justice underlinings that accompany this kind of construction?


All of these questions must be answered to support a more comprehensive understanding of how feasible Biden’s objectives truly are.



 

References


100% clean electricity by 2035 study. NREL.gov. (n.d.-a). https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/100-percent-clean-electricity-by-2035-study.html


Conners, B. (2022, April 29). FERC proposes major shake-up of electric transmission grid: Insights. Holland & Knight. https://www.hklaw.com/en/insights/publications/2022/04/ferc-proposes-major-shake-up-of-electric-transmission-grid


Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). U.S. Electricity Grid and Market. EPA. https://www.epa.gov/green-power-markets/us-electricity-grid-markets#:~:text=Renewable%20energy%20sources%20contribute%20to,production%20at%20utility%2Dscale%20facilities.


Slanger, D. (2023, June 12). Reality check: The United States has the only major power grid without a plan. RMI. https://rmi.org/the-united-states-has-the-only-major-power-grid-without-a-plan/


Slanger, D. (2022, April 26). The best time to plan transmission was 15 years ago. the second-best time is now. RMI. https://rmi.org/the-best-time-to-plan-transmission-was-15-years-ago-the-second-best-time-is-now/


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