Last month, the wind and solar sectors got a massive boost when President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 into law. That measure gives tens of billions of dollars in new tax credits to the companies that build wind and solar projects.
Last week, Sen. Joe Manchin, the powerful Democrat from West Virginia, introduced an infrastructure-permitting bill that could give the wind and solar sectors another big gift: If passed into law, the measure will give Washington bureaucrats the authority to override state and local objections to expanding high-voltage transmission lines, a move that the wind and solar industries have wanted for years.
The bill gives the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), in conjunction with the Secretary of Energy, the authority to big foot the states if they determine transmission lines are in the “national interest” and if they “enhance the ability of facilities that generate or transmit firm or intermittent energy to connect to the electric grid.” (For those of you scoring at home, see page 78 of the 91-page bill.) Indeed, the language of the bill makes it clear that America’s national interest should be handcuffed to weather-dependent renewables that require staggering amounts of land and whose supply chains depend heavily on metals, minerals and magnets that are produced almost exclusively in China.
The bill will allow blue states (think California, Massachusetts and New York) with aggressive renewable-energy mandates to force residents of neighboring states (think Utah, Maine and New Hampshire) to accept hundreds of 200-foot-high towers and the lines that connect them, so the states that want more renewables can meet their goals.
In addition, it gives FERC the authority to decide how it allocates the cost of the transmission projects. That means FERC can socialize the cost of the new projects onto residents of states that don’t get any of the juice being moved over the new transmission lines.
The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) has objected to Manchin’s proposal. Earlier this month, NARUC sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) calling the proposal an “overreach and infringement on state authority.” The letter said the legislation “will serve only to centralize and consolidate federal authority, limiting or eliminating state and local input into siting decisions, without achieving the streamlining goals of alleviating delay in electric transmission siting process.”
While much media attention has focused on the opposition to oil and gas pipelines such as Keystone XL or Dakota Access, there’s been scant coverage of the opposition in rural America to high-voltage transmission projects. Nevertheless, the opposition is real and widespread. For example, in 2017, Iowa enacted a law prohibiting the use of eminent domain for high-voltage transmission lines. The move doomed the Rock Island Clean Line, a 500-mile, $2 billion, high-voltage direct-current transmission line that aimed to carry electricity from wind projects in Iowa to Illinois.
In 2018, Clean Line Energy Partners abandoned its years-long effort to build a 720-mile, $2.5 billion transmission line across the state of Arkansas. The Plains & Eastern Clean Line aimed to carry wind energy from Oklahoma to customers in the southeastern U.S. But the project faced fierce opposition in Arkansas, where the state’s entire congressional delegation opposed the deal. Also in 2018, New Hampshire regulators rejected a high-voltage electricity transmission project called Northern Pass Transmission that was to carry hydropower from Quebec, Canada to consumers in Massachusetts. But the 192-mile, $1.6 billion project — which was to go through New Hampshire’s White Mountains — was vetoed in a unanimous vote by the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee.
Last November, Maine residents voted — by a margin of 59 percent to 41 percent — to reject the New England Clean Energy Connect project, which aimed to move Canadian hydropower to customers in Massachusetts.
These rejections show that land-use conflicts are the binding constraint on the expansion of renewables in the United States. As I show in the Renewable Rejection Database, more than 350 communities across the U.S. have rejected or restricted wind projects since 2015. Not only are local communities and counties rejecting the construction of wind and solar projects, they are also opposing the transmission projects needed to connect those projects with large urban centers.
In addition to boosting transmission line construction, Manchin’s bill directs federal agencies to “take all necessary actions” to issue permits for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a project that aims to move natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina. It also sets time limits on federal environmental reviews and requires the president to identify the country’s most-critical energy projects. In an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal, Manchin said his bill promotes an “all-of-the-above energy approach America needs if we are to defend this nation’s energy security.”
According to press reports, Schumer has agreed to tie Manchin’s infrastructure bill to a budget resolution that must pass by Friday to keep the federal government operating. But it’s not clear that Manchin’s bill has the support needed to pass. Several Democratic senators, and some Democratic members of the House, have said they oppose the measure and want the infrastructure bill to be voted on separately.
The bottom line here is obvious: Any federal overhaul of energy infrastructure permitting will be contentious. But Manchin’s Energy Independence and Security Act of 2022 includes what would be the biggest land grab by the federal government over the states in modern history. It would give unelected federal employees in Washington authority over the siting of power lines stretching hundreds of thousands of miles across rural America.
We need infrastructure siting reform. But legislation that includes a federal takeover of the siting of our electricity grid is a power line too far.