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Heinrich Announces Legislative Priorities to Improve Permitting, Planning, and Paying for Transmission

“Building transmission must be central to our clean energy and climate strategy.”

WASHINGTON- During keynote remarks at the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) Policy Forum in Washington, D.C., today, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) announced his plans to introduce legislation to improve the way that we permit, plan, and pay for transmission infrastructure to meet our decarbonization goals and support the energy transition, while building the clean energy workforce of tomorrow. He also highlighted significant investments and policy changes that he helped secure in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act to modernize the electric grid.

“Building big things in America again is the key to building our clean energy future,” said Heinrich, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the co-founder and co-chair of the Electrification Caucus. “We are going to need to invest in building many, many more transmission lines to meet our nation’s full potential as a global leader in the clean energy transition. Building that transmission must be the central piece in our overall climate and clean energy strategy.”

The ACORE Policy Forum unites senior leaders from across government and the renewable energy industry. The event this year focused on ensuring the success of the Inflation Reduction Act, building the clean energy workforce of tomorrow, and what is needed to catalyze a domestic clean energy supply chain and upgraded electric grid to meet our decarbonization goals and achieve the clean energy transition.

Senator Heinrich’s full remarks as prepared for delivery are below. 

It is an honor to open up this year’s ACORE Policy Forum.

I am grateful for the focus that all of you are bringing to what I see as one of our most pressing challenges:

How we can quickly build the transmission and distribution infrastructure that will be needed to connect vast amounts of clean energy and storage to our grid.

Let’s start with some good news.

Just last month, I welcomed the long anticipated news that the Bureau of Land Management has issued its Final Environmental Impact Statement for the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project.

A final decision on the right-of-way for SunZia should be coming this spring.

SunZia will be a transformative infrastructure project that will finally connect the incredible renewable resources in central and southeastern New Mexico with energy markets in Arizona and California.

Once they are constructed, the anchor wind generation projects in New Mexico slated to connect to SunZia will become the largest clean energy project in the entire Western Hemisphere.

This new transmission line will not only spur many permanent, good-paying clean energy jobs in generation, but it will also put thousands of New Mexicans and Arizonans to work during its construction.

And it will allow us to take a major step forward in rewiring the grid.

As we build out more transmission lines—like SunZia—and overhaul our existing transmission infrastructure, we can bring many, many more large-scale clean energy and storage projects onto the grid.

But only if we move much more quickly.

It has taken more than a decade and a half for a series of developers to navigate the complex siting and permitting processes for SunZia.

This will actually be the second time we have reached a record of decision.

I am confident that we will move forward with construction this time.

But future transmission projects simply cannot wait this long.

There is no such thing as endlessly patient capital.

And we know that we are going to need to invest in building many, many more transmission lines like this to meet our nation’s full potential as a global leader in the clean energy transition.

Researchers at places like the Princeton Net-Zero America Study estimate that we will need to double or even triple our transmission capacity to decarbonize our economy.

A Berkeley National Lab study last year found that we have more than 1,400 Gigawatts of proposed solar, storage, and wind projects waiting in interconnection queues.

These are the renewable energy projects that will help us achieve our vision for a clean and electrified future.

But because of mounting bottlenecks in the interconnection queues, they may have to wait years for approval to connect to the transmission that will bring their generation to market.

Building that transmission must be the central piece in our overall climate and clean energy strategy.

Building big things in America again is the key to building our clean energy future.

We made some great strides toward that future in the last Congress.

We passed substantial federal investments in clean energy and electrification and new federal policies to support the build out of grid infrastructure through both the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act.

I am particularly excited about three substantial new policies.

First, we created the Transmission Facilitation Program, a new revolving fund at the Department of Energy that will help developers overcome financial hurdles for new transmission lines and upgrades to existing lines.

Second, we made a 760 million dollar investment through the Inflation Reduction Act to facilitate the siting and permitting of interstate and offshore electricity transmission lines.

And third, we increased the Department of Energy’s Loan Program Office’s funding capacity for re-powering and re-conductoring transmission lines.

But we need to go even further.

And that means addressing the underlying problem that financing timelines and the time that it takes to get these major infrastructure projects through complex permitting processes don’t match up.

There are three key areas where we need to focus our attention and make substantial reforms if we want to build transmission quickly enough to meet our needs.

These are “the three P’s” -- a mantra coined by Rob Gramlich from Grid Strategies more than 15 years ago.

Planning, Permitting, and Paying.

First, Planning:

The Department of Energy just released an updated Needs Study for Public Comment and it confirms what we all know.

We need interregional transmission investments to improve system reliability and reliance, and to meet projected load and generation growth.

We also need cost allocation methodologies to reflect the multiple benefits provided by new capacity for renewables and power transfer capabilities across regions during emergencies like extreme heat events and winter storms.

We should also account for the benefits of less costly, non-transmission alternatives like storage, demand-response, energy efficiency, and more locally distributed energy in their planning processes.

In the coming weeks, I plan to reintroduce my bill to improve the effectiveness of the existing interregional planning process and to ensure that cost allocation methodologies reflect the multiple benefits provided by interregional solutions.

The second “P” is Permitting:

Successful projects on this scale necessarily need to navigate complex long-distance routes over diverse geography and different legal jurisdictions.

A route that goes through my home state of New Mexico will not only need to navigate the permitting process at the Bureau of Land Management.

It might also need to work with the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Tribal governments, the State Land Office, county commissions, and even the Department of Defense.

We have had to engage with all of these agencies and stakeholders during the process of approving new transmission projects in New Mexico.

This is never going to be simple.

But I have seen firsthand through my engagement in the SunZia process how beneficial the FAST-41 Permitting Council can be in convening representatives from across different federal agencies and stakeholder groups.

Ever since SunZia became a FAST-41 project, cooperating agencies agreed to and actually met updated timelines. And all of these cooperating agencies whose land is crossed by the proposed route agreed to greater transparency and accountability.

I hope that as this Congress engages in bipartisan discussions on broader permitting reforms that we can learn from and scale some of the elements that are already working well in FAST-41.

In the next few weeks, I will also be introducing a new permitting reform bill to give FERC and the Department of Energy additional authorities to expedite the siting and permitting review process for qualified high-voltage transmission lines through a collaborative multi-federal agency, Tribal, and state coordination process.

Finally, the third “P,” Paying:

I will soon reintroduce my transmission investment tax credit (ITC) bill, which, according to an ACORE study, would spur over 15 billion dollars in private capital investment to get these interregional lines built.

We need to send a strong signal to private capital investors that it is worth all of the time and effort it takes to steer these massive infrastructure projects all the way from planning to construction.

I am convinced that the same types of incentives that have fueled the monumental growth of our domestic wind and solar industries over the last decade can prove effective at promoting the construction of the transmission that we know we need.

But I have also learned over my years of engagement on transmission projects in my state that federal policy reforms alone will not make a difference in the more on-the-ground and localized work of stakeholder and local community engagement.

Before we turn to your questions, I would like to offer a few words of advice based on my observations on what has and has not worked in the siting of transmission lines.

There is so much value in doing the hard work at the front end to engage with local community members.

You need to come into these complex processes with receptiveness to feedback and a built-in flexibility that will allow you to successfully adapt with resource-backed solutions to the challenges that will inevitably arise.

And you should be ready to establish community benefit agreements that commit to local hiring and invest in local economic development.

Building trusting relationships with local communities, private landowners, Tribal governments, and stakeholder groups along your proposed route is paramount.

You will never be able to bulldoze or litigate your way through these types of complicated processes without reducing the scope of your ambitions.

And, again we are looking to build big things—not reduce their scope.

I would encourage developers to look at issues like environmental mitigation and working with Tribal Nations as opportunities for positive engagement rather than confrontational obstacles.

We obviously need to have a broader discussion between the clean energy industry and the larger environmental and climate advocacy communities about how important these transmission projects are to climate action as a whole.

But that more systems-level policy debate can’t replace your specific investments in mitigation of specific environmental impacts of your projects.

Meeting proactively with local environmental groups and committing real resources to habitat conservation and mitigation will prove to potentially skeptical stakeholders that you are serious about making your work beneficial rather than harmful to the environment.

I would also encourage you to hire a Tribal consultant and look to build partnerships with Tribal governments if your proposed route may go through Tribal lands.

You should also look at the first-of-its kind joint venture that was announced last year by the Morongo Band of Mission Indians and Southern California Edison.

The Morongo Band agreed to become a joint owner of a 700 MW transmission system and an individual participating transmission owner in the California Independent System Operator (CAISO).

The Morongo and Southern California Edison worked directly with FERC to develop an innovative financing mechanism that ensures the Tribe will receive a monthly income in the high seven-figures for the next 30 years.

Morongo’s investment tripled CAISO’s capacity to connect renewables.

It’s a win-win-win for the Tribe, for ratepayers, and for the developers of the project.

And I hope this can become a template for how to successfully build transmission projects that cross Tribal lands. 

I also want to emphasize the critical importance of working closely with trades unions and with career and technical education institutions.

We all know that we need to grow and develop the skilled workforce that will build all of this new transmission and clean energy infrastructure.

Electricians, plumbers, pipefitters, and carpenters are going to be the real climate heroes in the years and decades ahead.

These careers in the trades will be a lot like the one that my dad took such pride in as an IBEW lineman.

I know that he took real pride in knowing that when storms hit and the power went out, he was the one who would go climb the power poles and turn the lights back on for our whole community.

We need to transform the way that we talk about the current challenge of workforce shortages in the trades.

We can re-frame this pivotal moment as a unique opportunity for so many young people to pursue meaningful and good-paying careers like the one my dad had.

Whenever I speak with young people—including my own sons—I know just how important it is for them that we are focused protecting their future on this planet. 

I want young men and women to be energized by the career opportunities that are before them to be a part of the solution to the climate crisis.

They can be the heroes in this story.

They have an opportunity to build and maintain thousands of miles of new transmission lines.

They will manufacture the heat pumps and electric vehicles that will help all of us go electric.

And they will build the on-shore and off-shore wind farms, the advanced geothermal plants and modular nuclear reactors, and the solar-and-storage projects that will power our decarbonized energy future.

We just need to invest in them and direct our own energy and policies toward building big things again in America.

With that, I welcome a few of your questions.

Thank you.