Three Ways Federal Infrastructure Policy Can Speed Up Our Clean Energy Transition

May 14, 2019 | 3:36 pm
Photo: John Rogers
Sam Gomberg
Senior Analyst

May thirteenth marked the beginning of Infrastructure Week and, as you might have heard, there might be at least one thing that Republicans and Democrats agree on: the need to invest in our nation’s aging infrastructure to remain competitive and build a more resilient, equitable system. This includes the electricity sector, where we must decarbonize our electricity supply, address growing threats to system resilience from climate change, and invest in the research and development of technologies that will power our growing clean energy economy. Here’s three ways a federal infrastructure policy package could help make this happen.

Unlock investments in our electric transmission system

Transmission lines are the backbone of our electricity supply. As we transition to clean energy, we also need to invest in a more efficient and resilient transmission system.

Transmission lines are critical to delivering electricity from where it’s generated to where it’s consumed, and as the nation transitions from centralized fossil-fueled power to more dispersed renewable energy resources, we need to invest in our transmission system to efficiently carry renewable energy to our light switches and build resilience against challenges such as extreme weather events and cyberattacks.

Research shows that these investments provide benefits to consumers that outweigh the costs. But a number of hurdles remain, including complex and often dysfunctional planning and approval processes, and a failure of focused leadership at the top – namely Congress and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

To address these issues, Congress should declare it a national priority to upgrade our nation’s electricity transmission system and direct FERC, which oversees our bulk electric supply, to prioritize transmission planning in furtherance of a zero-carbon, more resilient electricity supply.

Congress should also authorize and fund the Department of Energy (DOE) to provide technical assistance to state and local authorities that evaluate and approve transmission projects and to develop a national transmission plan that includes recommendations on how to take advantage of existing rights of way like railroad corridors and interstate highways.

Accelerate battery storage deployment

Battery storage can make the electricity system more reliable, affordable, secure, and resilient to extreme events – all while smoothing the way for high levels of renewable energy. This is why experts agree that energy storage should be a top federal priority – both to speed up deployment of current technologies and develop the next generation of this resource.

Current storage technologies are ready for targeted cost-effective deployment to enable renewable energy integration, offset transmission system investments, and replace fossil-fuel-powered plants – particularly those located in urban environments and having significant public health impacts on surrounding communities. To achieve all that battery storage can offer for a clean, resilient electricity supply, Congress should fund tax incentives for battery storage investments to incentivize the private sector while also providing grant programs for deployment in underserved communities where battery storage can displace fossil fuels and reduce local pollution.

Congress also has a role in funding a diverse body of research on the next generation of storage technologies that would put the United States back in a global leadership position, attract private investments, create jobs, and provide significant value to the electricity sector.

Support the infrastructure build out that will fuel the offshore wind boom

The U.S. offshore wind industry about to take off, but federal investment in our infrastructure are necessary to make sure we’re ready.

The U.S. offshore wind industry is experiencing significant growth. Robust winds, relatively shallow waters, and lots of energy demand near the coast combine to make the Central and Northern Atlantic prime for offshore wind development. Several east-coast states – led by New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Maryland – are moving to procure offshore wind, pushing U.S. demand to more than 17,000 megawatts (MW). Recent estimates put the value of the U.S. offshore wind supply chain at nearly $70 billion with the potential to create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

But building out the offshore wind industry requires coordination among federal, state, local, and tribal authorities, and a multitude of interests including commercial and recreational fishing, the Department of Defense, seagoing navigation, compliance with protections for migratory birds and marine mammals – just to name a few. At the same time, U.S. waters offer a new set of technical challenges compared to the European offshore wind industry that has matured over the past several year.s And at this early point in the U.S. offshore wind industry’s growth, we don’t have the ports, ships, and crews necessary to support the industry.

All of this calls for a proactive and robust federal role in the build out of our offshore wind industry. Ongoing coordination of stakeholders to identify prime offshore wind sites and open them for development while maintaining environmental safeguards is necessary. Research and development of the next generation of offshore wind turbines and the transmission grid to carry that clean energy to load centers must be funded. And federal funding to states and local communities is critical to not only build the ships, ports and other equipment necessary for offshore wind development, but to do it in a way that improves the efficiency and lowers the environmental impacts on local communities.

Infrastructure touches nearly every aspect of our lives – including our electricity supply and the potential to transition to a clean, equitable, and more reliable and resilient system. A federal infrastructure package presents an opportunity to pass ambitious climate solutions at the federal level. These should be national priorities, and any federal infrastructure package should reflect this urgent priority.