NEW YORK (AP) — If the nation is to meet President Joe Biden's goal of cutting America’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of the decade, it will have to undertake a vast transformation toward renewable energy.
And to achieve that, the near-impossible will be required: A broad network of transmission lines will have to be built to carry solar and wind power across the continent to deliver electricity to homes and businesses — something the administration envisions accomplishing by 2035.
What's more, utility-scale batteries on a widespread scale, to store renewable energy for peak-use periods, would be needed.
The financial and technological tasks of linking cleaner power sources to an aging electric grid pummeled by climate change are daunting enough. Add to them the legal fights that states and localities will likely mount to fight the build-outs of transmission lines in their areas, and the challenges become extraordinary.
It normally takes years to win authorization to build new transmission lines. Because many such decisions are made at the local level, critics across the country who oppose having wires strung through their landscapes could further prolong the battles.
“I’m very worried,” said Larry Gasteiger, executive director of the transmission industry trade group WIRES. “Given the timeframes we’re looking at, it’s almost hard to see how we meet them. We really need to have everyone puling on the oars at the same time and in the same direction, and unfortunately, we’re not seeing that, to be honest.”
The idea behind the Biden plan for cleaner power transmission is to transform the fuel for America's power grid from mostly coal and natural gas to wind, solar and hydroelectric power. The U.S. electricity system relies on about 600,000 miles of transmission lines that carry electricity from power plants or dams to communities and 5.5 million miles of local distribution lines, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Some of the consequences of climate change — more frequent storms, wildfires and other extreme weather — include damage to the nation's electric grid. Severe weather was determined to be the predominant cause of more than 300 transmission outage events from 2014 to 2018, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. An additional 200 outages were caused by transmission disruptions or interruptions, which are essentially unexpected failures. Most of the nation’s transmission lines were strung in the mid-20th century with just a 50-year life expectancy, the group said.
That reality hit hard in February. Severe snowstorms in Texas caused deadly power outages that lasted days, killing more than 100 people. In California, Pacific Gas & Electric’s crumbling equipment sparked a series of deadly wildfires in recent years, and the worst, in the town of Paradise, California, killed 85 people in 2018. Residents throughout California frequently lose power as utilities shut it off to reduce the chance that their old equipment could start a wildfire.
Even while extreme weather erodes the nation's existing infrastructure, the need for reliable electricity to power an ever-growing number of electronic devices and vehicles is sure to surge. Given the state of the electric grid and the ambitious nature of the goals, Gasteiger calls Biden’s emissions goal, with its dependence on transmission lines, a “moonshot effort.”
To reach the president's goal of a 50% reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, the nation would have to stop using coal entirely by then and let consumption of oil and gas decline by 2% every year, according to Philip Verleger, a longtime energy analyst. Yet to meet the nation’s energy demand, he said, the United States would have to double the amount of energy that's produced annually by wind and solar.