Unfortunately, I Care About Power Lines Now

If America wants to fight climate change—or enjoy the benefits of a modern economy—it must get much better at building electricity transmission. Yikes.


By Robinson Meyer

The Atlantic

July 28, 2021


Knud Pfeifer / Picture Press / Red​ux


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In the past decade, the United States has struggled to build new transmission lines linking different regions of the country, even though such lines are essential to basically any vision of the future national economy. In 2011, President Barack Obama attempted to accelerate the completion of seven major new transmission lines. Only two were finished. Since 2009, China has built more than 18,000 miles of ultra high-voltage transmission lines. The U.S. has built zero.

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The U.S. must triple its transmission infrastructure in order to decarbonize by 2050, according to a landmark Princeton study. As Steve Cicala, an economics professor at Tufts University, recently told me, solar and wind are now the cheapest forms of electricity generation in some parts of the country. But those cost declines only matter if the largest power markets are connected—via new transmission!—to those areas.

Cicala laid out his thinking in a paper published earlier this year by the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute.

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This status quo—in which it’s easy to build new fossil-fuel infrastructure but very difficult to build new electricity infrastructure—is lousy for the climate. It’s even worse than it may seem too, because coal, which is the dirtiest fossil fuel, can easily move across the country via rail networks. In essence, companies can transport every type of energy easily—except zero-carbon electricity.

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The SITE Act would fix that discrepancy by giving FERC automatic authority to permit all transmission projects that cross at least two states and carry more than 1,000 megawatts. And a transmission-investment tax credit, which would discount the cost of new transmission projects by 30 percent, would further move things along.

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Expanding the grid would be a tremendous accomplishment. But to do it … lawmakers have to do it.


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