As I wrap up my series of columns on one potential path our electric cooperatives might follow to reach President Biden’s proposal for carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035—utilizing the Princeton University’s Net-Zero America study—it’s clear that there will be significant investments in new infrastructure and greater challenges to reliability than ever before. I have appreciated all the readers who contacted me with their suggestions and concerns. My goal was to give you unbiased and accurate information. As a cooperative member, the path chosen will ultimately affect what you pay for electricity.
While many Americans believe that climate change must be addressed, folks must also realize that the solution will require a significant investment in capital—more powerlines, more wind turbines and solar farms, more nuclear power, and significant carbon capture for natural gas plants, all at a scale never experienced before. Some technologies are yet to be proven, and some elements will be very controversial. Still, it is the reality of what it will take to get to carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035.
I have no doubt that Americans can rise to the occasion and accomplish this goal, but I am less sure of the timeline in which to accomplish it. For example, in Wisconsin, the Public Service Commission approves all major generation and transmission projects. It generally only looks at the needs of our citizens. The other 49 states have very similar commissions that govern their states. As a result, siting new power plants and transmission lines does not come without controversy.
We are experiencing this now with the Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line project that began in 2014 and will take several more years to complete, if approved, due to several lawsuits. To meet the 2035 timeline, the approval process would need to be accelerated, which may mean reducing state oversight of future projects. The reconciliation package being debated by Congress includes funding for a Grid Deployment Authority whose purpose would be to help finance and accelerate the development of high-voltage transmission lines by using existing public property to secure rights-of-way. With as much as 60% more transmission lines needed, potential government-led efforts to fast-track power line construction projects will likely collide with a community’s interests affected by these projects.
Now imagine tripling the number of nuclear power plants and shifting more decision making to Washington, D.C. At a minimum, this will create a perception of less local control and accelerate oppositional interventions that will ultimately delay any massive infrastructure buildouts.
Future climate regulations may require coal and natural gas facilities to be shut down prematurely, resulting in unpaid debt for these plants. As a replacement, new debt will be acquired to build carbon-free generation assets. In addition, there will be considerable costs to build more transmission power lines. President Biden’s climate plan does include a provision that would require the government to absorb the unpaid debt from cooperative fossil fuel plants closed prematurely. While there will be some efficiency savings, the truth is that an accelerated path to carbon pollution-free electricity comes with a cost that will depend on whether Congress acts to pass this into law.
An all-of-the-above, carbon-free approach will be needed to provide safe, reliable, and affordable electricity for you. Some readers felt I was unfair comparing the amount of farmland that would be used for solar and wind. One suggested using the rooftops of people’s homes and businesses. While a worthy conversation, and not to dismiss the contributions made by rooftop solar, the magnitude of carbon pollution-free electricity needed requires cost-efficient, utility-scale projects that integrate reliability solutions. The Princeton study also discusses other renewable energy resources such as hydrogen, biomass, and batteries. In the case of batteries, the study recognizes their future significance and utilization, but unlike other studies, does not propose a “renewables and batteries alone” strategy that I believe would be a far more costly, and a less reliable path to carbon pollution-free electricity.
Your electric cooperative has already made renewables a sizable part of their energy portfolio and will have to make significant decisions and investments should the nation embrace a plan for carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035 and fossil-fuel-free by 2050. We can get there using an all-of-the-above approach with more renewables, nuclear, carbon capture, and other technologies if our government provides flexibility. Political and societal trends are pushing us in that direction. Each of us has a chance to shape our own energy future. Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of some of the underlying issues facing your electric cooperative. Achieving carbon pollution-free electricity is doable. Achieving it by 2035 is debatable. This is the conversation we need to start having today.