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Opinion: Without approval of major transmission projects, the West’s clean energy efforts will fall short

The Inflation Reduction Act can only take America’s clean energy drive so far

Last month, I joined President Biden at a new wind tower manufacturing plant that just opened in Belén, New Mexico.

The opening of this $55 million factory will create 250 advanced manufacturing careers for New Mexicans. These are the types of high-quality trades careers that you can build a family around.

But it wasn’t too long ago that the company behind it — Arcosa Wind Turbines — was in the middle of difficult layoffs at their other facilities around the country.

The company’s outlook changed dramatically when we passed the Inflation Reduction Act.

Today, Arcosa’s manufacturing orders have surged above $1.1 billion, according to its CEO, allowing the company to expand to new facilities.

Just days after President Biden’s visit, the major solar cell and panel manufacturer Maxeon announced it will open a new $1 billion factory that will create 1,800 new jobs in Albuquerque.

These massive manufacturing plants in my state are proof that the investments that Congress passed in the IRA to supercharge our clean energy sector are working.

From experiencing record-breaking heat waves, historic wildfires, and extreme long-term aridification, those of us in the West know how crucial these investments are. This landmark piece of legislation is the single greatest step we have ever taken to alter the trajectory of the climate crisis and to build the clean energy future our children deserve.

One year in, the IRA’s impacts are visible across the country: the law’s energy tax credits, and the long-term policy certainty they provide, have generated huge investments in renewable technologies, including continued growth of wind and solar and a new burst of domestic battery manufacturing for electric vehicles.

In just the past year since we passed the IRA, private companies have announced more than 80 utility-scale clean energy projects worth $270 billion, according to the American Clean Power Association, a figure roughly equivalent to the previous seven years-worth of investment.

Securing our energy future also depends on electrifying large swaths of the economy, from the cars we drive to the appliances in our homes and workplaces.

The IRA’s rebate program, which mirrors legislation I introduced in 2021, is quickly making heat pumps, induction stoves, and condensing clothes dryers more accessible to Americans, with additional support targeted to low-income households.

While the rebates reduce upfront costs, these highly-efficient appliances will continue to save Americans money on their energy bills for years and help curb the health impacts of burning dirty fossil appliances in our homes.

All these factors — the climate, cost, and health benefits — were top of mind when I installed heat pumps and electric appliances in my own home.

Thanks to the IRA, we are going to see more change in our economy—and more progress toward decarbonization—in the next four years than we have experienced over the previous 40.

But that doesn’t mean we can take our foot off the accelerator anytime soon. The IRA won’t get us all the way to where we need to go.

Simply put: if we want to connect all of new clean power resources incentivized by the IRA to the grid, we need to build more transmission lines.

The lack of transmission capacity is stifling companies’ ability to go all in on clean energy projects and holding us back from creating an even bigger manufacturing boom than what we’ve seen up to this point.

Reliable, affordable electricity is the backbone of our entire economy. Delivering that power to American communities depends on a national network of high-capacity, high-voltage power lines.

Right now, however, our grid is fragmented and much of our transmission infrastructure is woefully outdated. And it can’t meet the growing demand for new, clean power generation.

Today, thousands of gigawatts of renewable projects are facing long wait times and skyrocketing costs to connect. A recent survey from the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) found that while developers are eager to further ramp up investment, some are proceeding with caution because of concerns about grid capacity.

All of our progress toward the adoption of cleaner, more efficient technologies depends on transmission. A recent study from Princeton University determined that unless we at least double our current rate of transmission buildout, the U.S. will miss out on an eye-popping 80% of the IRA’s emissions reduction target. Carbon polluting coal and gas power plants would even be forced to increase production to satisfy rising electric demand.

As everyone who lives in the West knows, this summer’s heat has been brutal; ensuring our power keeps running during the hottest and coldest extremes that have become more regular each year has literally become a matter of life and death.

Crucially, all types of energy generation — whether it’s a wind farm or a gas plant — are vulnerable to extreme heat or winter storms. Greater transmission capacity allows regions to share electricity with their neighbors in these moments of need.

By increasing our flexibility to move power over longer distances, we also ensure the U.S. can take full advantage of our domestic energy resources and reduce our dependence on foreign imports.

We are starting to see some major transmission projects move forward, like Pattern Energy’s SunZia Transmission and Wind, which will generate 3,500 megawatts of wind power in New Mexico and transport it to hungry energy markets in Arizona and California.

Once built, SunZia will be the largest renewable energy project ever built in the Western Hemisphere, generating an estimated $20.5 billion in economic benefits.

But it took 17 years to get here.

I fought for SunZia through countless delays and regulatory hurdles — and it was well worth it — but we need to learn from this experience to get additional transmission built across the U.S. much more quickly.

I introduced legislation to give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission the authority to site certain large-scale transmission lines, like those that cross two or more states, and require the Commission to approve or deny applications within three years. This is not about easing scrutiny or giving every project an automatic greenlight. But 10, 15, even 17 years to permit a line is simply too slow considering the paramount importance of modernizing our grid.

We also need to ensure other developers do what Pattern did voluntarily with SunZia by engaging with the local stakeholders and committing to community benefit agreements and economic support for communities along the project route.

I have also proposed creating a 30% investment tax credit for significant transmission projects, which will encourage long-term financial commitment to the grid, much like the IRA’s tax programs have done for clean energy manufacturing and deployment.

When we passed the IRA, we showed the world that the U.S. was ready to lead on climate action. We cannot let our efforts go to waste by ignoring a vital piece of the clean energy puzzle.

We need to finish the job.