OPINION | TED THOMAS & GLEN HOOKS: Key to the future

Transmission stalling clean energy

If we asked you to identify the single biggest barrier to deploying massive amounts of clean solar and wind energy in Arkansas, what would you guess that barrier to be?

Some would say “expense,” but clean energy is now largely cheaper than most other energy sources.

Others might guess “partisan politics,” but support for clean energy is becoming more and more bipartisan every day as taxpayers, churches, school districts, businesses, and Arkansans save money.

The answer might surprise you—it’s about transmission.

Specifically, it’s a lack of transmission and a huge backlog in the interconnection queue. We have enormous amounts of clean energy projects awaiting approval and interconnection in Arkansas (and across the country), but we currently lack enough transmission capacity to handle the load.

According to a recent study by Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, developers have more than 40 gigawatts (40,000 megawatts) of Arkansas-based clean energy projects in line and set to be deployed. For perspective’s sake, an average coal-burning power plant in Arkansas is about 600 megawatts. Our state’s clean energy interconnection backlog places us in the top 10 of all U.S. states.

Looking at the nationwide backlog, we’re talking about 2 terawatts (20,000 gigawatts or 2 million megawatts)—that’s more electricity than all U.S. power plants combined.

Deploying this amount of clean energy would yield tremendous benefits for Arkansas and the nation. The price of solar energy has dropped by more than 80 percent since 2010 and wind energy by almost as much, beating out the cost of traditional fossil-fuel-based electricity in many cases, and costs will continue to drop as technology improves. Bringing more clean energy online will mean significant utility-bill savings for Arkansans, along with good-paying jobs and cleaner air.

A dearth of transmission capacity and delays in the interconnection queue are standing in the way.

In addition to the obvious costs in electric rates and jobs, the lack of adequate electric transmission capacity carries with it another enormous hidden cost to ratepayers—the costs of grid congestion. Our current non-modernized electric grid simply cannot handle the amount of clean energy waiting in the queue. When low-cost clean energy can’t make it onto the grid, we customers end up paying for more expensive sources of electricity.

According to a report released this month by Grid Strategies, the monetary cost of grid congestion was an estimated $13.3 billion in 2021, and is projected to go up even more if we don’t add transmission capacity. To be clear: That’s billions in extra costs paid by ratepayers, not utilities.

What will it take to solve this problem? Before we can all enjoy these benefits of scaled-up clean energy, we need a commitment to significantly increase the amount of available transmission to deploy this energy. We must make the transmission approval and deployment process more efficient, more streamlined, and more strategic.

In short, it’s going to take a massive—but do-able—effort from all parties: State and federal regulators, regional transmission organizations, utilities, and elected officials must be pulling in the same direction with the same goal of deploying as much clean energy as possible as quickly as possible.

Here in Arkansas, a large part of our territory is served by a regional transmission organization called Midcontinent Independent System Operator (“MISO”) that covers states in the central U.S. from Minnesota all the way down to Louisiana. Earlier this year, MISO made a significant commitment and investment aimed at improving transmission and clearing the interconnection backlog in the northern part of its territory—but has not yet made a similar commitment to Arkansas and our fellow states here in the South.

If we are going to successfully deploy clean energy in this region, we need MISO to focus on our region as well.

We’ll also need to take additional steps. Streamlining the interconnection queue process and the approval process for new transmission lines is essential. Also, the least expensive way to deal with variable generation is to permit customers who choose to vary their load in exchange for compensation. New advanced meters allow for advanced measurement of energy efficiency and demand response programs.

It’s beyond evident that clean energy is a big part of our future and Arkansas is poised to be a leader. There are barriers to be sure, but barriers that we can surmount with a commitment to working intelligently together. We call on our regulators, elected officials, utilities, and fellow citizens to join us in that commitment.

Let’s get to work.

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Ted Thomas is principal at Energize Strategies and a former chairman of the Arkansas Public Service Commission. Glen Hooks is policy manager for Audubon Delta, a regional arm of the National Audubon Society that includes Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.