The Midwest grid operator, Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), just approved the largest investment in transmission lines ever in the United States, a long-overdue step forward for MISO’s electricity system, which spans from Louisiana to Manitoba, Canada. These 18 new lines will provide tremendous reliability benefits for the customers in the MISO North region, which includes Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, while also delivering huge financial benefits and allowing much more clean energy to connect to the grid. Here is a map of the lines:
It has been a long, slow process to get here, but this is a big step forward. States should move quickly to approve these lines, and MISO should now move forward to approve the next batch of transmission lines. Unfortunately, MISO has already said it is facing delays.
Customers are the big winners all around. In addition to reliability benefits, these lines will provide, on average, $2.60 in benefits for every dollar spent. That is because while the total portfolio of these new lines, known as Tranche 1, is estimated to cost $10.3 billion, MISO also estimates $37.3 billion of value from moving power around the large region.
Is this worthy of a celebration? Yes. It has taken years to get to this point. To bring its stakeholders along and reach consensus, MISO held more than 200 meetings, by its own estimate.
For renewables, this opens the door to an estimated 53 gigawatts of new wind and solar energy, renewables plus storage and battery projects—enough to power 12 million homes. This means that new clean energy could power every home in Illinois and then some. And, building these new transmission lines and renewable projects will create around 330,000 jobs, more than the population of Fort Wayne, Indiana.
But the work has only just begun
“In many ways, we’re just getting started,” said Aubrey Johnson, vice president of system planning and competitive transmission, on a MISO committee call discussing the Tranche 1 proposal before sending it to the MISO board for approval.
The electric grid is undergoing its greatest transformation since its inception. It is moving away from dirty, expensive fossil fuels, incorporating more renewables, more energy efficiency, more demand response, more storage, and other technologies that aid all these things. This requires the grid to be more nimble and more connected.
This is even more important when we are trying to slash greenhouse gas emissions. A model completed by Princeton University to achieve economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2050 found that transmission must at least double and perhaps even quintuple in size from 2021 levels.
One tranche approved, three to go
So, while this is a good step forward, there is still a long way to go.
MISO manages the grid in all or parts of 15 states (Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin), but you would not know that from studying the approved projects. Tranche 1 does not include any lines in MISO South (Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas), and it does not expand the current weak transmission links between MISO North and MISO South.
MISO broke up its regional transmission projects into four portfolios. Tranche 1 only addresses reliability in the North, and, in fact, more than that is needed. The second set is intended to finish that job. The third tranche will address reliability problems in the South. And the fourth is meant to expand the connection between MISO North and South.
What is at stake? The value of regional transmission
Extreme weather has already demonstrated the value of regional transmission in MISO. In February 2021, Winter Storm Uri resulted in tragedy in Texas, with 246 related deaths, some from punishing cold during which the strained grid simply could not provide enough heat.
But here in MISO, the story had a better ending. MISO states benefited from a regional grid and 2011 regional transmission lines called the Multi-Value Projects, which are regional transmission lines similar to those that MISO just approved. These lines kept the lights on in MISO regions during Winter Storm Uri. As Renuka Chatterjee, executive director of systems operations at MISO, said “I don’t know what would have happened without [the Multi-Value Projects].”
Extreme weather continues to cause higher demand and more strain on the grid. News about extreme heat and more storms are now the norm. In June, severe storms hit the Midwest, including a supercell in Chicago and a storm with “egg-size hail” in Wisconsin. During that month, MISO warned that extreme heat combined with a tightening capacity reserve, which ensures electricity is available on the hottest days of the year, could have severe consequences. On July 20, all of the MISO territory had highs of 80 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, with some areas reaching the high 90s.
Clean energy is waiting
Building regional transmission will not only help us prepare for extreme weather but it will also unleash gigawatts of clean energy. Many potential clean energy projects are in limbo, waiting for transmission to be built. The MISO interconnection queue has 116 gigawatts of renewable wind and solar, renewables plus storage and battery projects, waiting to get built.
It took MISO and stakeholders 11 years to get to this new portfolio of transmission lines. In response to the delays last year, John Norris, a former commissioner for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and former chairman of the Iowa Utilities Board, said the long-range transmission plan “is already five years too late”—now, it is almost six years too late. MISO attempted to prepare a long-range plan back in 2017, but that effort was thwarted by MISO South stakeholders who did not want any new transmissions. The need for regional transmission to accommodate changes in the industry was already critical in 2017. This is even more true now.
Unfortunately, MISO has already announced that the expected approvals for Tranches 2 and 3 will be delayed beyond their original dates. They are now slated for board approval at the end of 2023 and 2024, respectively. This is in spite of MISO’s own recognition of the critical need for these lines.
In early 2022, MISO CEO John Bear wrote directly about this in his messages at the beginning of the 2022 MISO Response to the Reliability Imperative, stating, “The work we are doing is not optional. To maintain system reliability, we must respond to the unprecedented change we all face and to avoid the severe health, safety, and economic impacts of prolonged outages. This work cannot be put off for months or years—much of it has long lead times, so we need to act now.”
In light of this call to action, MISO’s recent announcement of delaying Tranches 2 and 3 is worrisome at best. We do not want to see what happens when an emergency occurs, and the lines we need are missing.
MISO and its stakeholders are at a crossroads. MISO needs to keep up the momentum and continue to design the grid that the energy transition demands and that customers need—not get bogged down in disputes and inaction.
So, if you see a MISO employee, buy them a drink, give them a high five, and shore them up for the work ahead. This is not the finale, but only the first act in a critical fight for the grid we so desperately need.