The New York Times almost figured it out. In “Why the U.S. Electric Grid Isn’t Ready for the Energy Transition,” The Times explores a litany of challenges to making the transition to a renewable-dominated electricity system. Yet, in reporting the story, The Times is silent on the most inconvenient truth: despite acknowledging that the grid isn’t ready for the energy transition, and widespread recognition that replacement capacity has not yet been built, the Biden administration is aggressively working to accelerate existing plant retirements. It doesn’t take a grid expert to know what happens when an electricity system that is already teetering on the edge loses significant sources of power generation without the requisite replacement capacity to fill the gap.
Getting to the Biden administration’s goal of a largely renewable, emissions-free grid by 2035 would require more than doubling national transmission capacity in a decade. With transmission additions slowing, rather than speeding up, a colony on Mars first seems increasingly more likely.
The hurdles to siting, permitting and building interstate transmission, both technical and political, are enormous with no breakthrough in sight. Siting, permitting and connecting renewable generation to the grid isn’t proving much easier.
According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), high-voltage electric transmission line additions totaled just 552 miles in the first 11 months of 2022, less than half the previous year. It’s estimated the U.S. needs to add up to 10,000 miles a year of high-voltage transmission to enable the Biden administration’s goals. And the Clean Power Association recently found that the current pace of wind and solar installations would provide just 30% of what is required to reach a net-zero power grid by 2035.
Four FERC commissioners testified again in front of Congress with grid reliability center stage. One congressman, unwilling to heed the reliability warnings, went so far as to accuse some of the commissioners of fearmongering about a resource adequacy crisis.
Commissioner Mark Christie, visibly exasperated, replied, “We just heard an accusation about fearmongering with those of us expressing concerns about loss of dispatchable resources. I don’t think the head of NERC is fearmongering when he repeatedly says that this is a coming danger. I don’t think the head of PJM is fearmongering when he has said we’re losing dispatchable resources at a rate we cannot sustain.”
Christie wasn’t done, adding, “I think we need to listen to the engineers, not the lobbyists… All the experts are saying — who know how to operate a system, the people who actually know how to operate a system — are saying this is a huge and coming problem and I think we better be listening to them.”
And that’s the rub. The people who have control of the nation’s energy policy — who are dictating the speed of the transition and the speed at which critically important resources are being pushed off the grid — aren’t listening.
Conor Bernstein is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.