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Tricks, Treats, and Transmission: Bringing Equity to Grid Planning

A spooky illustration of a transmission tower viewed from the bottom, looking like a spider web, and 3 bats flying around.

The past year has shown how the cli­mate emer­gency and severe weath­er test the trans­mis­sion sys­tem with hur­ri­canes, wild­fires, flood­ing, and increased demand for pow­er from extreme tem­per­a­tures. The cur­rent trans­mis­sion sys­tem is fail­ing these tests. In some cas­es, extend­ed pow­er out­ages after extreme weath­er have trag­i­cal­ly increased the death toll. These extend­ed out­ages dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly harm low-wealth com­mu­ni­ties and com­mu­ni­ties of col­or, as detailed by the Ini­tia­tive for Ener­gy Jus­tice.

As the Fed­er­al Ener­gy Reg­u­la­to­ry Com­mis­sion (FERC) explores improv­ing trans­mis­sion plan­ning, we have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to address crit­i­cal equi­ty con­cerns. Recent­ly, near­ly 200 com­ments were sub­mit­ted to FERC in response to its advanced notice of pro­posed rule­mak­ing on trans­mis­sion plan­ning reform. As reflect­ed in these com­ments, FERC needs a new approach for a trans­mis­sion sys­tem that sup­ports decar­boniza­tion, pro­vides the resilience need­ed to address the effects of a chang­ing cli­mate, and facil­i­tates an equi­table and just clean ener­gy transition.

There is a strong con­nec­tion between ener­gy jus­tice and trans­mis­sion reform, high­light­ed by the com­ments of attor­neys gen­er­al, orga­ni­za­tions such as the Cen­ter for Bio­log­i­cal Diver­si­ty, and oth­ers. The cur­rent sys­tem has left us with large, fos­sil fuel-fired pow­er plants that oper­ate dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly in low-wealth com­mu­ni­ties and com­mu­ni­ties of col­or. And as it cur­rent­ly stands, the pow­er gen­er­a­tion sec­tor remains a top con­trib­u­tor to U.S. green­house gas emis­sions. In addi­tion, a recent EPA analy­sis found that com­mu­ni­ties of col­or are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly locat­ed in areas where the analy­ses project the high­est lev­els of cli­mate change impacts with 2 degrees C of glob­al warm­ing.” Con­cen­trat­ed pol­lu­tion sources, racist redlin­ing poli­cies, and oth­er fac­tors con­tribute to the dis­tinct health threats that cli­mate change pos­es to com­mu­ni­ties of col­or and low-income com­mu­ni­ties. Address­ing these issues, Mass­a­chu­setts Attor­ney Gen­er­al Mau­ra Healey empha­sized that as we weigh the costs and ben­e­fits of new approach­es to trans­mis­sion, we also must rec­og­nize the ongo­ing costs of the exist­ing sys­tem if no reforms are implemented.”

Trans­mis­sion plan­ning can also dri­ve the equi­table deploy­ment of clean­er resources. The grid should be planned to max­i­mize ener­gy effi­cien­cy, resilient dis­trib­uted gen­er­a­tion, and oth­er non-wires alter­na­tives. Pro­grams to pro­mote access to stor­age resources can reduce emis­sions and build resilien­cy for com­mu­ni­ties. As the Cen­ter for Bio­log­i­cal Diver­si­ty dis­cussed in their com­ments, rooftop and com­mu­ni­ty-owned solar, com­bined with stor­age and micro­grids, can empow­er com­mu­ni­ties dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly harmed by the cur­rent sys­tem, reduce urban heat island effects, and offer cli­mate resilience.

A more trans­par­ent, inclu­sive trans­mis­sion plan­ning process is also vital to achiev­ing an equi­table trans­for­ma­tion of the grid. Com­menters urged FERC to seek ear­ly and diverse stake­hold­er engage­ment, includ­ing through the new Office of Pub­lic Par­tic­i­pa­tion. They also called for increased trans­paren­cy and stake­hold­er engage­ment from region­al trans­mis­sion orga­ni­za­tions and inde­pen­dent sys­tem oper­a­tors, who run com­plex plan­ning process­es that would ben­e­fit from mean­ing­ful non­prof­it and pub­lic sec­tor par­tic­i­pa­tion. FERC should also explore pro­vid­ing fund­ing for stake­hold­ers to hire the pro­fes­sion­al exper­tise nec­es­sary to par­tic­i­pate. Eleven state attor­neys gen­er­al told FERC in mul­ti­state com­ments: We can’t expect res­i­dents from dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties to par­tic­i­pate for free while every­one else in the room is being com­pen­sat­ed to be there.”

What are the next steps? FERC will hold a tech­ni­cal con­fer­ence on Novem­ber 15 and will be accept­ing com­ments in response to the ini­tial round of com­ments on its advanced notice of pro­posed rule­mak­ing until Novem­ber 30. You can vis­it the State Impact Center’s new web resource to find the lat­est news and devel­op­ments in the world of trans­mis­sion reform.