How new power transmission rules could have a big impact on the South

The rules do not mandate construction of any new transmission infrastructure. Instead, they require utilities to publish regional plans that look 20 years ahead. That could lead to renewable energy growth
FILE - Power utility lines are seen, Oct. 6, 2021, in Pownal, Maine. Federal energy regulators on Monday, May 13, 2024, approved a long-awaited rule to expand the amount of renewable energy such as wind and solar power that is transmitted to the electric grid, a key part of President Joe Biden’s goal to decarbonize the economy by 2050. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

FILE - Power utility lines are seen, Oct. 6, 2021, in Pownal, Maine. Federal energy regulators on Monday, May 13, 2024, approved a long-awaited rule to expand the amount of renewable energy such as wind and solar power that is transmitted to the electric grid, a key part of President Joe Biden’s goal to decarbonize the economy by 2050. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

The federal government adopted new rules Monday requiring electric utilities to be more transparent and proactive in planning the huge transmission lines that send power across their territories.

Transmission is considered key to adding more renewable energy to the grid as fossil fuel-powered generation, particularly coal, is retired over the next decade. Stronger transmission across regions would also make the U.S. power supply more resilient to extreme temperatures and natural disasters, which scientists say are becoming more destructive as a result of climate change.

The rules, issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), do not mandate construction of any new transmission infrastructure. They require utilities to publish regional plans that look 20 years ahead and respond to specific criteria, including the projected generation mix and corporate clean energy commitments.

They also allow the federal government to grant permits for new transmission in high-priority corridors if states do not.

The new rules follow a tightening of air pollution standards for power plants that provide electricity, a move observers say will accelerate the retirement of coal plants and make gas more difficult to pursue, thus boosting demand for renewables. Those new emissions rules, however, are being challenged in court.

Nick Guidi, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who works on energy regulation, said the new FERC transmission rules bring much needed transparency and rigor to the existing planning process, which has been in place for over a decade and failed to produce much in the way of results, particularly in the South.

“Each of the individual utilities would come up with their own transmission plans for their own systems, and staple them all together, and then they call that a regional plan,” Guidi said. “This is a big overhaul of that process.”

Guidi predicted the rule would likely face challenges in court from utilities. Two influential Georgia utility groups said they’re still reviewing the rules.

Unlike much of the country, the Southeast lacks a regional transmission organization or an organized wholesale energy market, which take much of the planning and pricing out of the hands of utilities. Clean energy advocates say this has caused the South to lag behind when it comes to infrastructure upgrades and renewable energy. FERC’s new transmission rules were welcomed by advocacy organizations including the Clean Energy Buyers Association and the Southern Renewable Energy Association.

Solar panels are seen on the roof of the Strategic Energy Institute at Georgia Tech on Thursday, April 4, 2024.
Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

Specifically, the rules are aimed at high voltage “regional” transmission, which in the context of energy regulation means connecting neighboring utilities such as Georgia Power and the Tennessee Valley Authority or Duke Energy, which serves much of the Carolinas.

The new rules become effective 60 days after publication in the national register, with the first plans due about 10 months after that. The 20-year regional plan for Georgia should be published by the Southeast Regional Transmission Planning forum, which represents utilities in the state as well as, Alabama, Tennessee and parts of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Kentucky and Missouri.

The Georgia Transmission Corporation, which represents 38 electric cooperatives in the state, said in a statement that it will thoroughly review the new rules to determine how they may impact the organization.

Georgia Power’s parent, Southern Company, issued a similar statement, emphasizing its commitment to “clean, safe, reliable, and affordable energy” as it evaluates the rule’s impacts.

“Through integrated system planning, we assess the transmission system, propose projects to our state regulators, and make prudent investments on behalf of our customers,” it said.

Separately, southern utilities and energy advocates are still waiting for FERC to respond to a court ruling that the Southeast energy market is not competitive enough. Depending on how the agency responds, that action could also have big impacts on energy production and pricing in Georgia.


A note of disclosure

This coverage is supported by a partnership with Green South Foundation and Journalism Funding Partners. You can learn more and support our climate reporting by donating at ajc.com/donate/climate/