Transmission Permitting is Broken

Net zero proponents, such as Net Zero America at Princeton University, believe the United States needs to build between 2x and 5x as much electricity transmission as we have today. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that to meet President Biden’s goal of a zero-carbon gird by 2035, the transmission capacity must increase up to 3 times today’s capacity “or between 1,400 and 10,100 miles of new high-capacity lines per year starting in 2026.” One big question is whether this is even possible. Based upon the approvals for transmission given out by the Biden administration, there is no possible way to build that many miles of transmission lines.  

The White House recently celebrated their “ongoing efforts across the Biden-Harris Administration to accelerate the buildout of long-distance, high-capacity transmission lines.”  But a deeper look into what they are bragging about shows how deeply dysfunctional the federal government is with transmission permitting.  

The White House boasted that they “jumpstarted permitting for key transmission lines that cross Federally-managed lands. In 2022, three major transmission projects received final approvals for construction from the Department of the Interior,” including the Gateway South Transmission Line, Ten West Link Transmission Line, and Gateway West Transmission Line. Let’s investigate these approvals.  

Gateway South Transmission Line

In May 2022, the administration granted a “notice to proceed” for this 400-mile transmission line from western Wyoming to central Utah. This notice to proceed, however, was not “final approval for construction” as the White House claimed. A notice to proceed is an important step, but this notice to proceed (NTP) only “authorizes PacifiCorp to start non-surface disturbing, pre-construction work on the ROW.” 

Not only does the notice to proceed only authorize pre-construction work but it does not authorize preconstruction work for the entire transmission line. The notice to proceed states, “Several segments of the transmission line are excluded from this NTP. Segments of the transmission line excluded due to incomplete cultural treatments will receive an NTP issued by the BLM Field Manager within whose field office the cultural site is located, once BLM archaeological staff and the Field Manager determine the treatment has been completed in compliance with the Historic Properties Treatment Plan (HPTP).” While PacifiCorp has started some work, there is no green light to start with the actual construction.  A partially permitted transmission line does not transmit. 

The process of authorizing this transmission line has been slow. It started in November 2007, when PacificCorp first submitted an Application for Transportation and Utility Systems and Facilities on Federal Lands (SF-299) to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for this project. It then took 9 years for the BLM to reach a Record of Decision and then an additional 5½ years for PacifiCorp to receive the notice to proceed on parts of the line.  

All told, 15 years have passed since PacifiCorp submitted their original application for this transmission line and actual construction has not yet begun.  Nor has such construction been permitted.    

Ten West Link Transmission Line

In July 2022, the administration granted approval for the construction of the Ten West Link Transmission line—a proposed 125-mile transmission line from Tonopah, Arizona to Blythe, California. This is great news, but the approval was still not a speedy process.  

In the case of Ten West Link, the application (SF-299) was filed in September 2015 and the Bureau of Land Management worked through a relatively speedy process and signed the Record of Decision in November 2019—a mere four years. But it still took along 3 years after the Record of Decision for the federal government to give the go-ahead to start construction.  Less than 7 years from filing an application to start of construction is still not fast enough to even double our transmission capacity before 2050  

Gateway West Transmission Line

In September 2022, BLM signed a notice to proceed for some of the segments of this proposed 1,000-mile long transmission line from eastern Wyoming to western Idaho. Like Gateway South, these approvals have been over a decade in the making.  

This transmission line was first proposed in May 2007. From the proposal to the Record of Decision (ROD), it took 6 years until November 14, 2013. But even then, the BLM explains, “The ROD identifies the BLM authorized route on public lands for Segments 1 through 7 and Segment 10. As explained in the ROD and initially presented in the final EIS, the BLM has chosen to pursue a phased decision for the project, deferring the decision for Segments 8 and 9 until a later date.” In other words, after 15 years, there still is no final approval to construct this transmission line.  The uncertainty associated with deferring a decision on the entire route stifles investment since builders are properly concerned that conditions may change the economics of any proposal, triggering potential additional delays and red tape. 

The White House bragged about giving three projects “final approval for construction” but it appears that only one of the three received an actual final approval for construction. The other two—Gateway South and Gateway West were both proposed over 15 years ago and have yet to receive approval to fully construct the transmission lines.

There are currently around 160,000 miles of high-voltage power lines in the United States. The White House is proud of making progress toward approving less than 1,600 miles of transmission lines—not for actually approving 1,600 miles of transmission lines but for making progress. Progress is good, but it has taken over 15 years for the federal government to make this progress, which would increase capacity by 1 percent. Given these examples of the slow transmission permitting process by the federal government, it does not appear possible to get enough transmission permitting to achieve President Biden’s goals. It has taken 15 years to permit a 1 percent increase in capacity, while Biden’s plans call for a 200 percent to 500 percent increase in a dozen years.  Something is wrong with their math.   

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