Biden's climate plan depends on one huge change

When most people flip on a light, they don’t think about where the power comes from before it illuminates the room. But for President Biden’s climate plan to succeed, the United States is going to have to move a lot more electricity across much greater distances—and catch up with China in the process.

Biden’s plan calls for eliminating greenhouse-gas emissions from the power sector by 2035, and from the entire economy by 2050. To encourage other nations to aggressively combat global warming, Biden has committed to at least a 50% reduction in U.S. emissions by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. Scientists say that’s the pace of carbon curtailment necessary to prevent the catastrophic consequences of a warming planet and rising seas.

Biden’s plan will involve massive increases in renewable forms of energy such as solar and wind power. That will intensify a renewable energy rollout already underway. But just as important will be revamping the U.S. electrical grid so that clean power can get to more people, including those far away from solar or wind farms. That will involve unprecedented changes to the power grid that have so far proven impossible, even as China and Europe rapidly outpace the United States in clean-energy delivery.

The U.S. power grid is split into three “interconnections,” with the "seam" running north-south just east of the Rocky Mountains. There's an eastern sector, a western sector, and Texas. Inside each interconnection are regional authorities that can transmit power to each other. But they can move very little power between the three interconnections.

That’s a giant barrier to the kind of efficiency Biden’s plan aims for, because cheap renewable power from one sector can’t get to another. Solar power from the sunny southwest can’t get to the east, and wind power from the Great Plains can’t reach the west coast, where blackouts are common. “Our current grid is very fragmented,” says analyst John Moore of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We have a lot of choke points and a complete absence of power lines in some areas. Our power grid was designed around local power plants supplying local customers.”

That model won’t suffice if the goal is to make cheap power from renewable energy available everywhere, and eliminate fossil-burning plants that are dirtier and costlier. Power plants that burn coal and natural gas have one big advantage: They can produce more power on demand, assuring there’s rarely a shortage. Renewables depend on the sun shining or the wind blowing, and in most places require backup power sources. But renewables would essentially gain market share if the grid could move power from wherever it’s being produced in the country, to wherever it’s needed, in near real-time.

One solution is a “macrogrid,” or a network of high-voltage lines that can move power hundreds or thousands of miles, in both directions, allowing the most efficient allocation of power nationwide. China leads the world in macrogrid installation, with 80 times as many interregional high-voltage transmission lines as the United States, according to a 2020 study by a green-energy coalition. Europe has 15 times as many high-voltage lines as the U.S. “In some places in the United States, grid officials call one another on the phone and order power,” says Gregory Wetstone, president of the American Council for Renewable Energy, a trade group. “In Europe and China, this happens in milliseconds using advanced grid technology that is readily available today. The upgrade to a 21st century grid is a big investment that would more than pay for itself. It’s part of what we see as critical in an infrastructure bill.”

The Biden administration hasn’t yet released a detailed road map for reaching its climate goals, but one is due within a few months. A 2018 Energy Department study, however, made a persuasive case for a U.S. macrogrid—while also alarming coal advocates in the Trump administration, who tried to scuttle the research. That study, by the department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, modeled a cost-benefit analysis of various upgrades to the national grid, including the construction of high-voltage lines carrying power between the western and eastern parts of the grid.

The standard for justifying an investment in power grid infrastructure is a relatively low return on investment of around 1.25:1, so a $1 million investment that generated savings of $1.25 million would be considered worthwhile. The NREL study found one scenario involving three new high-voltage transmission lines, plus upgrades within each sector, would produce a return on investment of 2.92 to 1, while saving $29 billion in costs over a 35-year period, compared with a more typical pace of upgrades. 

“The NREL study very clearly says building a combination of just a few superconductor lines from east to west, coupled with strengthening the power connections among different grid regions, will get us the best bang for our buck,” says Moore of the NRDC. Here’s a diagram of how an enhanced grid might operate, with the red strips representing new high-voltage lines:

Visualizations from the study show how power would flow from the southwest into the eastern grid early in the day, as power demand was rising in the east. Some of that flow would shift direction, from east to west, later in the day, as power demand increased in the west and declined in the east. Power could also be shifted as needed to address heat or weather blackouts or other strains. Texas would benefit if it opted into the national grid system, which up till now it has not.

The Biden administration and Democrats in Congress want to repeal tax breaks for oil and gas drilling and replace them with new tax incentives for clean-energy production, from any source. Clean energy would get even cheaper. Demand for clean energy could soar if utilities and consumers nearly everywhere could benefit from this cheap power, scaling the technology further still and pushing costs even lower.

The biggest loser would be coal, the dirtiest source of power. Coal is already in sharp decline as a power source in the United States (though not in China and India), and the NREL study found that a U.S. macrogrid would intensify the decline. Problem. President Trump championed the coal industry, and when officials in Washington caught wind of the NREL study, the Energy Department buried the study and prohibited researchers from giving presentations on it, as the Atlantic described in a 2020 expose.

With Trump gone, the NREL study may now be a template for modernizing the grid to fully harness renewable energy. Democrats have introduced two bills in the Senate that would subsidize high-voltage transmission lines between grid regions, including offshore wind power. The federal government would play a crucial role organizing such an effort, by mediating disputes among regional regulators and utilities and aiding with permitting and right-of-way issues. Getting the technology right might be easy compared with the bureaucratic challenge.

Biden’s climate goals are audacious and complex, with no single technology an obvious panacea. It depends on breakthroughs in battery storage capability, so power generated from ephemeral sources such as wind and solar can be stowed for later use. Carbon-capture technology that can pull carbon from the air and store it underground needs to get better. And political support for aggressive climate-change action needs to remain stable, lest the next president or the one after that reverse what Biden’s trying to do. Political momentum flows in both directions, just as power does.

Rick Newman is the author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips, and click here to get Rick’s stories by email.

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