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WSHU marked Earth Week 2021 by airing and publishing stories about climate change, energy and environmental challenges and solutions.

Transmission Upgrades Could Hold The Key To New England Clean Energy Goals

Gustav Holmström

President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal seeks to help reach the administration's ambitious clean energy goals for the U.S. over the next decade.

Part of that means funding upgrades to the country's electric transmission system — the poles and wires that everyone relies on to access power nearby or from hundreds of miles away. As New England experts explain, these upgrades are essential to reach clean energy goals in the region.

The Biden administration is poised to approve 10 new offshore wind projects in the Atlantic Ocean before the end of the year. Hundreds of turbines could be installed off the coast of New England over the next decade or more.

The power from those turbines needs to get from about 30 miles offshore to the regional power grid on land. Ann George represents the grid operator at ISO New England.

“You could build a transmission line through Long Island Sound,” George said. “That is a potential to bring the power through Long Island Sound and then connect into a Connecticut location.”

These transmission lines will be coming to coastal communities up and down the coast.

“You need transmission, to bring the offshore wind into the system, from out in the federal waters, but then also, you're going to need transmission to move it around the system,” George said.

Recent ISO New England studies found there is about 6 gigawatts of headroom for offshore wind before additional transmission infrastructure will be needed. Biden’s energy plans include 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030 with some poised for New England waters. For comparison, New England's two nuclear plants each provide just over a gigawatt of power.

The president’s infrastructure proposal sets aside around $300 billion to upgrade the country’s decades-old transmission systems.

Bill Quinlan is president of transmission at Eversource, a major electric provider and the largest transmission operator in New England — in control of just under half of the region’s transmission infrastructure.

“I believe you have good alignment today between the private sector and the public sector on the need to move aggressively towards a cleaner energy future,” said Quinlan.

Quinlan said the upgrades driven by Biden's plan will be essential to help traditional fossil fuel facilities retire and bring on new clean energy power producers.

“So you're building new generation facilities to essentially reduce carbon in the transmission grid as the enabler — it essentially allows the power to flow from those generation sources to where customers are located,” Quinlan said.

Generation sites offshore send energy to coastal communities and inland areas where people need electricity. And the transmisson grid brings hydro power from Quebec, New York and Pennsylvania, areas where at least 10% of all the energy that’s consumed in New England comes from.

“It's the enabler of the country's decarbonisation efforts,” Quinlan said.

Quinlan said it will be the responsibility of the utility companies to invest capital in transmission projects.

However, MIT energy economist Chistopher Knittel said it can be difficult for these projects to get approval from different state regulators — or even countries. He points to Eversource's Northern Pass power line, which New Hampshire blocked in 2018. Its successor, from Central Maine Power, has faced huge pushback as it continues to move forward.

“Quebec has tons of hydro electricity. And Massachusetts is trying to build a transmission line to connect Quebec to Massachusetts. But unfortunately, it has to go through either Vermont or New Hampshire or both. And the United States is not very good at siting transmission. And so even though there's some cheap, carbon free electricity up there, it might end up never being able to make its way all the way to Massachusetts,” Knittel said.

There’s also the cost: the estimated investment in the region’s transmission system has been over $12 billion since 2002, according to ISO New England. George said the investments have kept the system reliable at farther distances.

“A state like Vermont that truly is, you know, landlocked can look into contracting with these resources that are located farther away from them that provide power into the regional grid... Electrons don't stop at state borders. The electrons move around,” George said.

Eversource, United Illuminating, National Grid and others have made promises to spend ratepayer money — and possibly federal funding — on these goals over the next few decades.

Lee Hoffman is a lawyer that represents power generators and suppliers. He said that could mean new power lines tethered along state right-of-ways or buried underground.

“And if you think about our electric grid that way, we have transmission lines, which are the highways and the interstates. They're the really big lines that carry massive amounts of power, all the way down to the distribution systems, which are avenues, boulevards, and even country roads,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman said there is a real transmission challenge.

“Sometimes where the infrastructure is is not where people would ideally like to site power projects, whether they're renewable or traditional. Because those are sometimes in residential neighborhoods, or they're on historic properties, or there are endangered species nearby or whatever else have you,” Hoffman said.

But without the proper infrastructure in place, and a big storm hits or demand for power spikes, it's a lot harder to keep the lights on.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.