President Biden has set a goal for 100% clean electricity generation in the United States by 2035. The administration has further committed that the country’s economy will achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 — in other words, the amount of greenhouse gases produced will equal the amount removed from the atmosphere. These policies are driving significant changes in the energy industry as it works to reduce carbon emissions by integrating greener energy sources.
Wind and solar renewable energy generation and battery storage often get the headlines when it comes to the clean energy transition, but arguably transmission is the most critical factor in achieving the President’s lofty goals. Without expanding, modernizing, and upgrading our transmission infrastructure, the nation won’t be able to achieve net zero by anywhere near 2050.
A transmission revolution
Industry experts and the federal government agree that the U.S. transmission infrastructure needs to be overhauled. Capacity is one of the biggest transmission challenges we face. Hundreds of gigawatts of renewable energy are stuck in interconnection queues due to a lack of transmission capacity, and that’s only a small fraction of the electricity needed to meet the President’s electrification targets. To meet the administration’s goals of net zero by 2050, experts agree that capacity must be doubled in the next 15 years and then doubled again in the following 15.
To that end, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has recently launched a $20 billion initiative called “building a better grid.” The funds will be used to develop and upgrade high-capacity, long-distance electric transmission lines, and facilities across the country. This massive expansion will result in more than a million miles of new transmission lines over the next 30 years.
A new way of thinking about transmission
As we head toward a net zero future, it won’t be enough to run new transmission lines — the way we think about transmission must evolve. Our mindset must shift from just doing upgrades linked to the location of new power generation to one that evaluates the needs of the entire transmission network. The long-distance, high-voltage transmission projects and interregional and cross-country links funded by the DOE will allow the country to create more clean energy but with less nationwide capacity. In other words, we can generate solar energy in the sunbelt and send it over high-voltage transmission lines to parts of the country that don’t have as many sunny days. This process will require transmission planning commissions to think on a national and regional level. It will also require more national coordination around siting and permitting.
In addition to adding capacity, the electric transmission system itself must be modernized. Upgrades are required to meet the increased demand that will come with the electrification of transportation and other critical segments of the economy. Transmission must also be modernized so the system can handle intermittent and distributed renewable energy sources. With the modern grid, electricity will flow over transmission lines from diverse energy sources, including utility-scale solar systems, residential rooftop solar arrays, wind farms, battery storage, and more. The transmission system must also support bi-directional flows to and from things like microgrids and electric vehicles.
The energy industry will play a vital role in the electrification of this country. To achieve the nation’s net-zero goals, we need to consider how we produce electricity and how we design and build our new transmission infrastructure.
Interested in more news about the goal to reach net zero in the U.S.? Read “Can Natural Gas Bridge the Gap to Net Zero?”