by conor bernstein

With overwhelming evidence accumulating from Texas, California, New England and Europe, it’s becoming evident that dispatchable fuel diversity and robust capacity reserve margins are essential to navigating the energy transition.

These cornerstones of reliability and affordability are disappearing in grids across the U.S. as utilities continue to dismantle, or pledge to decommission, well-operating coal capacity at the exact moment the market is telling us it’s needed more than ever. America’s de facto energy policy is deconstructing its energy system far faster than we can build the grid of tomorrow.

Building new renewable generation and the infrastructure to move power to demand centers is increasingly meeting stiff resistance or proving all but impossible.

The Southern Cross transmission line in Texas — a rare, potential transmission success story — frames the challenge. The 400-mile, $2 billion power line that will connect Texas to the Southeast is on track to begin construction in 2023 with the hope of entering service in 2026. Should the line actually be completed, it will have taken 17 years from its inception to get there.

In Maine, a critical $1 billion transmission line designed to move hydropower from Canada to Massachusetts was just voted down by a state referendum. The developer, Avangrid, has already spent $400 million clearing land and installing poles for the project after securing federal and state permits. “If this type of project can’t get through, good luck getting others through,” Avangrid CEO Dennis Arriola said.

In fact, others aren’t getting through. A recent report found that transmission investment rose from $17.7 billion in 2013 to about $22.4 billion in 2018, while the miles of new transmission lines completed declined from a peak of 4,500 miles in 2013 to 1,300 in 2018.

The Maine project had vocal and highly visible support from backers including Maine Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm. But it was soundly defeated at the ballot box.

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Vermont is a case in point. Opposition to utility-scale renewable projects is so strong the pipeline of potential projects has completely dried up. An article for the Sierra Club’s in-house magazine observed that, in 2012, Vermont had at least a dozen wind projects in development. Today, there are none.

“I love Vermont dearly and admire its conservation ethic,” Bill McKibben, leading voice of the keep-it-in-the-ground movement, told the magazine. “But there are moments, faced with a global crisis, when it feels like the state motto should be ‘Don’t change a thing until I die.’”

As the magazine summed up, the wind turbines, solar panels and transmission lines of a renewable future must go somewhere, “but many communities — including those full of avowed liberals and environmentalists — are working hard to make sure they go somewhere else.”

The challenges associated with integrating large amounts of wind and solar power remain immense. Perhaps none are larger than the prospect of trying to build tens-of-thousands of miles of high-voltage transmission lines, hundreds-of-thousands of acres of solar panels and thousands of wind turbines where they are not wanted.

Conor Bernstein is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.