Posted 2/11/16 by Matt Brown
Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a study which concluded that the United States could massively reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 if it could build a new power grid capable of large-scale integration of renewable power sources. Our current antiquated grid, according to the report, is completely inadequate to the task. Renewables are tricky because production isn’t constant; cloudy days sap solar power, while windless (or overly windy) conditions will idle wind farms. A smarter, more robust grid could seamlessly switch between distant power sources as production rises and falls, ensuring efficient power delivery nationwide.
Even absent the massive environmental gains we’d reap from NOAA’s renewables-based plan, simply replacing our grid with a more efficient one would save our country over $125 billion a year in efficiency and reliability improvements, according to Common Good’s 2015 infrastructure report.
The case for a new grid is strong, but building a brand new national power grid is a massive project, spanning vast distances and requiring a huge investment of time, resources, and expertise. Alexander MacDonald, co-lead author of the study, likened the proposal to the interstate highway system, both in terms of scope, and in terms of the potential to transform the American economy.
Unfortunately, the comparison doesn't end there. Much like the interstate highway system, a new national power grid would be virtually impossible to build today. Three months after the original interstate highway bill was passed, shovels were in the ground, and within ten years of its authorization, the interstate highway system was halfway complete, with over 21,000 miles of roads. That timeline is laughably unrealistic today; between federal environmental review requirements, lawsuits arising from those requirements, and the overlay of state and local permitting regimes (including disagreement between states on inter-state projects), a project of that magnitude would take decades just to permit. In fact, President Obama proposed a more modest modernization of the power grid as part of the 2009 stimulus spending, but quickly found out that the regulatory hurdles would be impossible to clear. Without drastic changes to our legal system, we certainly won’t be building a new national power grid by 2030.
A gauntlet of legal obstacles stands in the way of sensible permitting timelines. Federal environmental review (under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA) would be mind-boggling. Review for the Bayonne Bridge-raising project, a project with negligible impacts which was entirely within the existing structure of the extant bridge, took three years and produced a 20,000-page report. The review for a national grid would likely require decades and span millions of pages.
Lawsuits would add years to the process. The Cape Wind project in Massachusetts was stuck in legal limbo for a decade while NIMBY lawsuits wound their way through the courts. A project of this scale would bring every possible litigant out of the woodwork, each working at cross-purposes to defeat the project, or to at least extract a reward in exchange for acquiescence.
Coordinating state permitting and local permitting would present another enormous challenge. An article from Climate Central describing the NOAA study glumly concluded that "[i]t is unlikely that such a system will be built before 2030 because states that may be opposed to a renewables transmission system have too much control over how and where it is built."
Recalcitrant states will certainly pose a problem, but the coordination issues run much deeper than that. Permitting for transmission lines varies significantly between states. In some states, individual towns and counties have veto authority on transmission-line siting. Some states require major permitting investments before siting decisions can be completed, while other won’t issue any permits until after siting has been finalized, which can make planning interstate routes extremely tricky. On top of this, many states have environmental review statutes even more onerous than NEPA, and would require massive duplicate reviews. President Obama’s team concluded that their modest upgrade proposal would require signoff from over 200 agencies. That signoff can be nearly impossible to achieve; the Savannah River dredging project has been in permitting purgatory for over a quarter century due in large part to infighting between Georgia and South Carolina. To build a national grid under our current legal system would involve rent-seeking and political squabbling at every level of state and local government, across thousands of jurisdictions nationwide. The disputes and negotiations would take years, perhaps decades, to resolve.
What’s needed is a new way of building infrastructure projects, one that involves clear lines of authority, environmental review that focuses more on overall impacts and less on minutiae, and an ultimate decision-maker to move projects forward and resolve disputes. For a project of this size the federal government should explicitly preempt most (or possibly all) state and local permitting, ensuring uniform results across state lines; in exchange, states should have more control over (and less federal interference in) projects wholly within their boundaries. Siting authority should be invested either in the federal government, as it is for interstate natural gas pipelines, or in regional authorities with minimal state interference. Finally, lawsuits must be limited to the earliest months of permitting, and must be resolved rapidly and with an eye toward common sense. Common Good has proposed legislative language to achieve this change.
Building a new, renewables-friendly power grid should be a top national priority. A new grid would save us billions of dollars a year, create huge numbers of jobs, free us from dependence on foreign oil, unleash our burgeoning renewables industries, enhance American competitiveness, and slash our national carbon footprint. But under the status quo system of infrastructure approvals, 2030 will come and go before the first permit is ever issued. That delay is unacceptable, but unless we insist on a new way of permitting infrastructure projects, it’s all but inevitable.