Illustration by Bernardo Ramonfaur

The electrification of transportation, heating, and industry is going to require a doubling of electricity generation in the U.S. by 2050. If most of this increased generation is to come from wind and solar with storage (the cheapest carbon-free source in many regions), and if, to save our climate, the current generation by coal and natural gas is to be replaced by more wind and solar generation, then 1.6 to 2.1 terawatts of wind and solar generating capacity must be added to the current generation capacity of 0.2 terawatts, a roughly ten-fold increase.

It might seem that, with wind and solar power now cheaper than coal in many places and cheaper than natural gas after the generous subsidies provided by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the deployment of wind and solar power in the U.S. should be exploding. While the generating capacity that has been proposed (2 terawatts) is indeed enough to more than double the current total capacity (1.2 terrawatts), experience tells us that, primarily because of long permitting delays, only a small fraction of the proposed capacity will be completed. Of the U.S. projects proposed between 2000 and 2017, only 21% (14% of potential capacity) had been completed and connected to the grid by 2022. The backlog problem is expected to get worse as the IRA drives the proposal of more wind and solar projects.

The problem is not so much with the approval of the solar and wind farms (though our own local experience with the Horse Heaven Wind Farm is telling) as with the approval of the 1000 to 10,000 miles of new high-voltage transmission lines needed each year to get the expanded electricity production to market. There are many challenges with replacing aging transmission lines and expanding the grid to accommodate more distributed and temporally variable generation.

Who should pay for the new lines? How can the various independent, state, and regional transmission organizations coordinate decisions with national goals of decarbonization? How can proposed transmission lines meet the requirements of federal, state and local regulations in a timely manner? How can the concerns of landowners be addressed without the costly option of underground transmission? Why aren’t proposed lines following interstate road and rail lines? These challenges have led to a ten to twenty year delay — as well as many cancellations — of successful planning, siting, and construction of transmission lines.

The Energy Policy Act of 2015 attempted to address some of these challenges, but the recent focus of attempts to break through the approval bottleneck has shifted to revisions to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The most common phrase you’ll hear in regard to revision is “permit reform." NEPA was clearly passed to protect the environment, but its process has been abused by Not-In-My-BackYard (NIMBY) opponents of projects with little regard for the balance of local impacts with national and even global benefits.

In late 2022, Senator Joe Manchin submitted a permitting reform proposal to legislation that “would have set a time limit on environmental assessments, allowed cross-agency collaboration to streamline approval processes, and granted the federal government greater authority to site power lines.” It failed to pass, losing progressive votes concerned about the weakening of a powerful mechanism (NEPA) to protect marginalized people from developments.

With Republicans taking control of the U.S. House in 2023, they have their own interpretation of what permit reform means: easier approval of fossil fuel projects.

Resistance of progressives

From Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL): “Most of the new infrastructure proposed in the U.S. is now for clean energy. Reports from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory find that in 2021, just 7.5% are natural gas. So, while a few new fossil fuel projects will be expedited, the vast majority of energy development projects will be much-needed investments in clean energy.”

I’d feel more comfortable with a weaker NEPA if our climate policy was based on a carbon price than on subsidies. People respond faster to pain than pleasure. Many people will continue to use fossil fuels if their price doesn’t go up, even when the alternatives are cheaper. So, if NEPA is relaxed across the board, fossil fuel use will not decline as much as it would with a price on carbon.