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Greening the Grid -- The Unique Federal Role
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By Brian LaShier and Jessie Stolark

There is broad consensus that economy-wide emissions must decrease by 80 percent by 2050 to ensure temperature increases are maintained at or below 2 degrees Celsius and a habitable world is preserved. To help achieve these deep emissions cuts, both utility-scale and distributed renewable resources will need to be rapidly and widely deployed throughout the U.S. energy sector. 

Despite the current administration’s focus on hydrocarbon energy resources, the transition to renewable power in America continues to accelerate. In 2016, renewable energy consumption cracked 10 percent in the United States. Between 2007 and 2015, grid operators and utilities increased their investments in renewable technologies by three-fold. And while state Renewable Portfolio Standards have driven investments in renewable power, 46 cities and 112 corporations have also pledged to 100 percent renewable power.

Amidst this growing divide between the federal government and states, cities and the private sector on climate change, it would be easy to conclude that the transition to renewable energy will likely happen without federal intervention. However, large-scale integration of renewable energy into the nation's electric grid will require a substantial level of coordination in order to overcome regulatory, financial and logistical challenges of greening the grid and ensuring the continued reliability and resiliency.

The federal government is situated to play a central role in addressing these issues and, in many instances, may be the only entity with the capacity and the legal authority to clear certain hurdles. Representative Jerry McNerney (D-CA), an energy engineer and co-chair of the House Grid Innovation Caucus with Representative Bob Latta (R-OH), has stressed the federal role in grid innovation, writing, “We need to continue perusing modernization strategies to continue to improve grid resilience and efficiency while lowering costs and reducing carbon emissions.” 

The federal government will play a moderating role in this transition, from R&D to transmission and distribution of new energy sources. Additional transformations, such as economy wide electrification including transportation and heating will also require vast amounts of renewable energy – and new policies to deal with these complex resource demands.

Congress and federal agencies such as the Department of Energy (DOE) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM), will need to coordinate with utilities, land owners, state, tribal, and local public officials, and a range of additional stakeholders to weave together geographically distant and diverse assets spread across the country that make up today – and tomorrow’s -- electric grid.

Federal research and development (R&D) has greatly contributed to the refinement, commercialization, and subsequent cost-reduction of many alternative energy, energy efficiency and transmission technologies that are now fueling the decarbonization of the American electricity grid.  DOE's national laboratory system and internal science programs have long conducted the core scientific research behind today's abundance of energy innovation. Meanwhile, ARPA-E and the DOE Loan Programs Office have helped incubate high-risk, high-reward technologies that may not have been given a chance otherwise due to risk averse private sector investors.

Despite the long-term nature of these efforts, the continued funding and maintenance of federal R&D programs is a key cog in advancing energy innovation and stands to give the United States a distinct advantage as it seeks to overhaul its electricity sources, delivery and efficiency systems. However, without additional federal investment in R&D, it is unlikely that the current pace of investments and innovation will continue. 

Additionally, the complexity and vastness of the grid presents a unique challenge in upgrading and maintaining electric transmission infrastructure. Transmission and distribution lines can cross state and even international boundaries. Project routes may have to use a mix of public and private lands with a diverse set of property holders and rules governing how and where construction is allowed to occur.

Project impacts on the environment and adjacent communities also necessitate a close and thorough examination before any electrons can begin to flow to consumers. Federal entities help to unite and guide the various permitting, planning, and oversight processes that go into major infrastructure endeavors.

The U.S. government is best-suited for carrying out the enormous task of monitoring the state of the grid and relaying priorities and vital updates to sub-national managers across the country. These tasks will be even more urgent as new technologies, such as storage and distributed resources, find their niche within the evolving grid. Greening the grid requires a unifying, experienced hand to guide their implementation. 

Brian LaShier and Jessie Stolark are Policy Associates at The Environmental and Energy Study Institute, a non-partisan non-profit that provides fact-based information to policy makers and stakeholders on a transition to a low-carbon economy.

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