Why wait? Get renewable energy projects connected to the power grid

Somebody — probably Congress or the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — has to figure out how to get these projects up and running.

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This file photo shows electricity power lines against cloudy skies. Congress and the experts must figure out a way to speed up the process of getting renewable energy projects connected to the electricity power grid.

Congress and the experts must figure out a way to speed up the process of getting renewable energy projects connected to the electricity power grid.

Sun-Times Library

Illinois is one of the better states in the country right now in which to build big renewable energy projects, but red tape is snarling many proposals.

Somebody — probably Congress or the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) — should figure out how to get these projects up and running. State lawmakers, including Gov. J.B. Pritzker, could help by using their bully pulpits.

Building a big renewable power installation in Illinois, such as wind or solar, requires permission to connect to the power grid from so-called regional transmission organizations. In Illinois, that means PJM Interconnection or the Midcontinent Independent System Operator. PJM operates in the northern part of the state, including the Chicago area, and MISO operates in the southern and central parts. Projects built outside the state that would bring energy here also need permission from RTOs.

Editorial

Editorial

But as solar and wind energy companies apply to build installations and connect them to the power grid, PJM can’t seem to get around to approving them for far too long, environmentalists say. Instead, the backlog gets bigger, even though FERC rewrote its own rules in July to try to move things along. Many proposed Illinois solar energy projects sit in limbo.

“There is definitely more that RTOs can be doing,” Sarah Moskowitz, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, told us.

Last year, PJM agreed the system wasn’t working, and reforms were made. But in May, a Natural Resources Defense Council analysis reported, “[E]ven under recent reforms, [PJM] is unlikely to approve new renewable projects quickly enough to even meet mandatory minimum state standards.”

Missing a window of opportunity

A sluggish approval process is unconscionable at a time when the world needs to switch to renewable energy sources quickly. Illinois will need almost 30,000 gigawatt-hours of renewables by 2028 to meet the ambitious renewable energy goals laid out in the 2021 Climate and Equitable Jobs Act. Since CEJA was enacted, enough wind, solar and storage projects to power 1.1 million homes have applied for interconnection in Illinois, but none has yet been approved, according to the NRDC’s J.C. Kibbey.

Are we really going to miss our window to address climate change just because the RTOs can’t get the technical studies and other work completed fast enough?

Illinois is a good place to build renewable energy projects because companies can get extra federal credits for building on sites with environmental problems, such as brownfields.

But the regional transmission organizations have to permit the new projects to join the grid, which means hiring lots more engineers and other people to vastly speed the approval process. Analyses are needed to ensure a new power producer doesn’t overload the nation’s aging electrical grid at a particular point. Often, new transmission lines must be built.

The interconnection delays are not just an Illinois problem. In its analysis, the NRDC calculated nearly 2,500 utility-scale solar, wind and battery storage projects that could generate 250 gigawatts nationwide were doing the equivalent of circling the skies over O’Hare Airport without a place to land. That’s more than the electric capacity of all the power plants operating on the nation’s grid today, according to the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition.

As of September 2022, 95% of utility-scale projects waiting to connect nationwide were in the territory of PJM, the nation’s largest grid operator.

Part of the challenge is electricity grids must be reconfigured to connect renewable energy projects in places with abundant solar or wind supply with users who live elsewhere, something for which the nation’s original power grid was not designed. Also, higher voltage lines sometimes are needed to deal with the variability of renewable energy. That’s a big undertaking. But it doesn’t mean renewable energy projects can’t get a speedier go-ahead.

Even a solar energy farm built on the site of a shuttered fossil fuel plant has to start at square one to get approval, though the transmission lines are already there, Moskowitz said. That doesn’t make much sense.

Some companies planning renewable energy projects now are not expecting to be able to start feeding electricity onto the grid for years, the NRDC said.

If the nation’s power grid continues to draw on many fossil-fuel-burning power plants, it will undermine the hoped-for environmental benefits of transitioning to electric vehicles. EVs should be using electricity from zero-carbon sources when they plug in, not energy from, say, a natural gas plant.

Regional transmission organizations, government officials and everyone else ought to be treating the transition to renewable energy as the global emergency it is. That means speeding up approval for new renewable energy sources to get on the grid.

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