The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This little-known bottleneck is blocking clean energy for millions

Energy developers want to build a ton of wind and solar — they just can’t get it connected to the grid

Vapor rises from a geothermal power station along the coast of the Salton Sea near Calipatria, Calif., in December 2021. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

To achieve America’s goal of shifting 80 percent of the country’s electricity away from fossil fuels by the end of the decade, there will have to be a massive transformation. That means solar farms peppering the landscape from California to New York; offshore wind turbines standing high above the waves off the coast of New Jersey; nuclear power plants emitting steam in rural areas. Together, these projects would have to add around 950 gigawatts of new clean energy and 225 gigawatts of energy storage to the grid.

And right now, projects accounting for at least 930 gigawatts of clean energy capacity and 420 gigawatts of storage are waiting to be built across the country.

They just can’t get connected to the grid.

These roadblocks known as “interconnection queues” — are slowing America’s energy transition and the country’s ability to respond to climate change.

“It’s a huge problem,” said David Gahl, executive director of the Solar and Storage Industries Institute, a research group affiliated with the solar industry. “If we don’t make changes, we’re not going to meet state and federal targets for climate change.”

To understand the lines blocking the U.S.’s progress on climate change, you first have to understand a bit about how the electricity grid works. It’s easiest to think about the grid — which carries electrons — like the country’s roads carrying cars.

Electrons are produced by a power plant, sent to a substation (those big systems of crisscrossing wires and transformers often near a big city center), and then connected to huge, high-voltage transmission lines that carry power across the country. Transmission lines carry electrons long distances across the country, much like interstate highways. Those electrons then pass into the “distribution” system, which is much like the smaller side streets, expressways, and roads that lead to individual homes and businesses.

When an energy developer wants to build a new power plant, they have to submit an application to see how adding that facility will affect the grid — sort of like trying to build an on-ramp onto a big interstate highway, according to Joe Rand, a senior engineering associate at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Regional authorities have to check to make sure that the highway can accommodate a new on-ramp without causing traffic pileups. In the same way that an authority might ask the road-builder to pay for the construction of the on-ramp — or, if the highway is really congested already, to pay to add an extra lane — regional authorities ask energy developers to pay to connect their solar or wind farms to the grid.

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Getting the okay to connect has gotten harder and harder. According to Rand’s research, between 2000 and 2010 it took around two years for a project to make it through the queue. Now, it’s taking almost twice as long. At the end of 2021, there were 8,100 projects sitting in line, waiting for permission to get connected. Together, they represent more than the combined power capacity of all U.S. electricity plants.

And 93 percent of those projects are solar, wind, or battery storage. One transmission authority, PJM — which covers Pennsylvania, West Virginia, D.C., and other areas on the Eastern Seaboard — accounts for nearly a third of the delays.

Asked about the matter, PJM spokeswoman Susan Buehler said the authority has recently improved its process, and that the changes will reduce the backlog.

Part of the reason for the backlog is that clean energy is booming. In the past, most of the power plants connected to the grid were coal or natural gas — big, fairly centralized power plants that had a set way of connecting to the larger grid. But now, with the rapid increase in wind and solar, there are different kinds of projects trying to connect to it, and they are much more widely scattered across the landscape.

“The system just wasn’t built to handle this kind of volume,” Gahl said.

At the same time, the country’s high-voltage transmission lines — again, a bit like a bunch of interstate highways — are almost at full capacity, jammed with tons of electron traffic. “Limited transmission capacity is really the root cause,” said Rob Gramlich, president and founder of the consulting group Grid Strategies. When transmission is jammed up, developers may have to pay more money to get their connection to the grid. That may cause a developer to rethink their plan, or potentially cancel their wind, solar, or geothermal plant entirely.

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Rand, the researcher at Berkeley Laboratory, says that not all projects that enter the queue ultimately get built. Developers may decide to focus on other projects or try to get permits later on. But, he added, the projects that withdraw from the queue “have drastically higher interconnection costs” indicating that some wind and solar farms may not be getting built because it costs so much to connect to the grid. In one study, Rand and a team of researchers from Berkeley Lab found that connecting a wind farm to the grid between 2019 and 2021 in areas of the Midwest and Canada cost about double what it did from 2000 to 2018.

Some experts and developers have offered solutions. Gahl says that some of the problem can be solved simply by making more data available to developers about the costs of connecting to the grid at different locations. Right now many companies throw a lot of applications in, hoping one will stick.

“When a developer goes into the process, they go into it kind of with a blindfold on,” he added.

Changing the order that transmission authorities receive and manage applications could also speed up approvals. Most of the time, the queues operate as “first-come, first-served” — meaning that they assess the projects in the order they were received. But some regional authorities already plan to shift to a “first-ready, first-served” model, where wind, solar, and other power plant proposals are clustered into groups and then approved in batches.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — the agency that regulates transmission across the United States — also plans to create a new rule that it says will help streamline the process.

But experts say the United States needs to radically expand transmission lines — now spanning 700,000 miles across the country — to accelerate the energy transition. Scientists estimate that transmission will have to increase 25 percent over the course of the decade to meet U.S. climate goals.

That will make it easier and cheaper for new projects to connect to the grid, and for all the country’s electricity to get to where it needs to go.

Even as money flows into the development of renewable energy, those transmission lines have lagged behind. “If you look over the past decade, you’re actually seeing fewer miles of high-voltage transmission builds per year than we used to in the past,” Rand said. “That trend line is going in the wrong direction.”

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