In energy circles, the people who work on transmission are feared and respected in the same way a shriveled and reputable local mage might be. They are sorcerers who understand one of the most powerful, corrupted bodies of knowledge in existence—American electricity law—but it has prematurely aged them and led them to scuttle around, muttering incoherent spells: “Ferck and nerck, ferck and nerck, ferck purpa noper.” Strange—lunatic, even? No question. Yet the town would surely be overrun without their protection.
So they are venerated, yes, but also pitied. Because for all their might, their ability to domesticate lightning and hurl it across the continent, they have failed to make much progress against the forces of the dark—in this case NIMBYs, old-school environmentalists, and utility lawyers. In the past decade, the United States has struggled to build new transmission lines linking different regions of the country, even though such lines are essential to basically any vision of the future national economy. In 2011, President Barack Obama attempted to accelerate the completion of seven major new transmission lines. Only two were finished. Since 2009, China has built more than 18,000 miles of ultrahigh-voltage transmission lines. The U.S. has built zero.
This sorry history has led transmission advocates to push for a nuanced set of regulatory policies that would encourage better outcomes under the current system. I respect their caution—but right now, with the infrastructure bill, the U.S. has an opportunity to fix its dumpy transmission system forever.
When policy makers argue about electricity and climate change, most of the fuss is over generation: How can we make as much power as possible without using fossil fuels? But transmission—moving electricity over long distances—is of increasing importance. The U.S. must triple its transmission infrastructure in order to decarbonize by 2050, according to a landmark Princeton study. As Steve Cicala, an economics professor at Tufts University, recently told me, solar and wind are now the cheapest forms of electricity generation in some parts of the country. But those cost declines only matter if the largest power markets are connected—via new transmission!—to those areas.
Cicala laid out his thinking in a paper published earlier this year by the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute. (I am an unpaid journalism fellow at the institute.) A century ago, long-distance transmission was impossible: If you used electricity, it came from a hydroelectric dam or coal-power plant a few dozen miles away at most. As the century wore on, the U.S. got better at moving electricity hundreds of miles via those high-tension wires you sometimes see next to interstates. But only in the past decade or so has truly continent-spanning transmission become possible. China has excelled at this new industry, building monumental direct-current lines that send electrons more than 2,000 miles to its coasts.
Even if climate change didn’t exist, building a national grid would still be worthwhile. The through line of U.S. economic development, from the railroads to the internet, consists of doing one particular move over and over again: creating, unifying, and regulating immense internal markets. Building a national grid is one of the great remaining tasks of this development. It would streamline electricity markets, reduce power bills, and allow urban wealth to flow to rural areas. Building a national grid would help Democratic states accomplish their climate goals, but it would also help Wyoming, one of the only states where companies can build new nuclear- or geothermal-power plants, by connecting it to millions of willing customers on the coasts. And if Congress passes a sufficiently stringent Clean Electricity Standard, then policy makers could watch many market mechanisms suddenly lurch into the service of decarbonization.
That’s the theory, at least. Unfortunately, transmission is a devilishly complex area of the law, and lots of powerful institutions do not want to see new lines get built. Utilities, in particular, resent transmission because it weakens their ability to control local power markets. Ari Peskoe, who directs the Electricity Law Initiative at Harvard Law School, has described utility control over transmission as a type of syndicate.