California has great clean energy infrastructure potential. Since 2012, the California Energy Commission through its Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC) program has supported more than 430 projects with $1 billion in funding resulting in $7.8 billion in private investment raised by awardees ranging from major universities to small start-up companies. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) 2022–23 budget proposal builds on EPIC’s success by including $1 billion for grants to companies headquartered in California. The grants would be used to develop and commercialize new technology breakthroughs to help the state achieve its climate and clean energy goals. This economic potential could expand even more, thanks to federal policies now taking effect.
After decades of failure to pass major federal climate legislation, Congress finally broke through last year with the Inflation Reduction Act and its close to $400 billion in clean energy investments. Energy modeling experts estimated that these provisions would help the U.S. cut its carbon pollution about 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, bringing the Biden administration’s Paris commitment of 50 percent cuts within reach. But there’s a catch — the new law could cause the U.S. to actually burn morecoal, if it’s not coupled with clean energy permitting reform.
That’s because the energy modeling groups assumed nothing would limit the rate at which clean energy projects like big wind and solar farms would be deployed. A subsequent Princeton analysis found that the slow rate at which the U.S. is building its electric transmission infrastructure would act as a crucial bottleneck slowing that clean energy deployment.
In recent years, the nation has only expanded its electricity transmission capabilities at a rate of just 1 percent annually, only about half as fast as in prior decades. Over the past decade, the U.S. has built more than 10,000 miles of new natural gas pipelines per year, compared to an average of just 1,800 new miles of electric transmission lines. Building a single new transmission line takes over a decade on average. Meanwhile, 2030 is now a scant seven years away.
The optimistic projections of the potential carbon pollution cuts from the Inflation Reduction Act mostly stem from an expected explosion in solar panel and wind turbine installations, thanks to clean energy tax credits. Energy modelers expect a tripling in American wind and solar generation capacity over just the next seven years. But most of those wind and solar farms would be built in rural areas and in the windy middle of the country. The clean electricity those projects generate would need to be transported to households and businesses in big population centers, mainly in cities and along the coasts.
That will require a lot of new electric transmission lines. The Princeton modeling team estimated that if the U.S. continues its slow 1 percent rate of annual transmission infrastructure expansion, that will only suffice to allow about 20 percent of the potential emissions cuts to be realized. And if those new solar panels and wind turbines are unable to connect to the grid, the increased electricity demand from the other Inflation Reduction Act provisions — which incentivize people to transition to electric cars, heat pumps and induction stoves — would instead be met by burning more coal and gas.
As a result, the Princeton team estimated that, perversely, if the U.S. doesn’t speed up its electric transmission infrastructure build-out, it will burn about 25 percent more coal in 2030 than it would have if landmark climate policy had not passed, potentially causing thousands of extra premature deaths.
The lack of permitting reform could also delay the economic benefits here in California. Missing out on these new infrastructure projects could result in lost construction and maintenance jobs, land leasing revenue and tax revenue for our area.
It’s thus critical that Congress pass permitting reform legislation that will add to America’s capacity to transmit clean electricity and speed up the approval of clean energy projects that are waiting to be built, while preserving communities’ ability to make their voices heard on the environmental and other impacts of proposed energy projects. Doing so will unlock the climate pollution reduction potential of the Inflation Reduction Act while also improving peoples’ health and saving thousands of lives in disadvantaged communities living near fossil fuel power plant pollution sources.
Robert Taylor is an environmental journalist whose research and published work centers on environmental issues. Taylor was a contributor to “Reaching Net Zero: What it takes to solve the global climate crisis.”