Here at NRDC and Sustainable FERC Project, we are working towards the clean energy future, and so is much of the Midwest. However, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO)—the organization in charge of approving and managing all transmission lines that carry energy to where it is needed in the Midwest and middle South—is failing to prepare for that future. In 2020, it ignored the demand for the regional transmission necessary to transition the Midwest into a clean energy hub. This year MISO can and should do better by building regional transmission.
In the Midwest, many governors have stepped up to address climate change and bolster the clean energy economies in their states. In Michigan, Governor Whitmer issued an executive order to cut carbon pollution and achieve carbon neutrality across the state economy by 2050. Wisconsin’s Governor Evers signed an executive order to set a statewide goal of 100% clean energy by 2050. In Minnesota, Governor Walz committed to eliminate carbon use in the electricity sector by 2050. In Illinois, Governor Pritzker campaigned on a promise to deliver 100% clean energy in Illinois and has committed to using his power to advance a comprehensive clean energy package. These recent announcements are part of a larger story, in which states, utilities, and cities across the nation are leading the transition to a clean energy economy. These state actions, coupled with the fact that clean energy is cheaper than ever before and cost competitive with other fuel sources, means clean energy development will only increase.
We frequently talk about the need to move faster on building wind and solar to stay on track with these ambitious climate targets. But what we don’t talk nearly enough about is how to get electricity from the place it is generated to the place it is needed. How do we get the bountiful wind and solar resources from often-remote areas in the Midwest to homes and businesses across the region and throughout the United States? And how do we meet the Midwestern states’, utilities’, and localities’ clean energy goals?
The answer is transmission—the poles and wires that bring electricity from generating plants, like wind turbines and solar panels, to our communities. Like interstate highways connecting towns and states together, transmission is necessary to connect the powerful, low-cost Midwestern resources to the demand (big cities and manufacturing hubs). In other words, small lines, like the local roads connecting your home to the nearest grocery store, won’t cut it.
MISO decides annually what transmission should be built in its footprint when it approves the MISO Transmission Expansion Plan; the plan details the projects that should get built. In December of 2020, MISO approved over 4.1 billion dollars of transmission investment for over 500 projects. Unfortunately, precisely zero of these projects address regional transmission needs to link large clean energy sources with communities across MISO’s territory. Instead, the vast majority of the projects will replace aging local lines and will be used for other local utility purposes.
MISO’s annual transmission plan is built around what MISO believes the region’s energy mix will look like in the coming years, i.e., how much wind, solar, storage, gas, nuclear and coal will be online, where it will be located, and where it is needed. Critical to the success of the annual expansion plan is developing and selecting the right generation mix and attendant transmission, reflecting what’s already waiting in line to be built and what is likely to be built over the next fifteen years. Getting the plan “right” today is especially important, because transmission can take up to a decade to build. To prepare for the clean energy future in ten years, we need to start building the necessary transmission now.
This is where MISO has failed. MISO ignored the rapidly increasing levels of economic clean energy in the development pipeline and accelerating state, local, and utility commitments to deep cuts in carbon pollution from the power sector. In other words, in 2020, MISO planned for incremental clean energy development over the coming decade rather than transformational clean energy development that is anticipated by 2035 and beyond.
Tens of thousands of megawatts of clean energy are just waiting to come online in MISO territory. Five hundred and ninety-three projects (storage, hybrid, wind and solar projects) are sitting in the MISO Queue (as of January 26, 2021), waiting to interconnect to the grid. But we know backlogs in the MISO Queue and soaring prices to interconnect will cause many projects to be withdrawn. From 2016 through October 2020, two hundred and seventy-eight clean energy projects (storage, hybrid, wind and solar projects) were withdrawn at advanced stages in the interconnection line.
By excluding regional transmission lines in its 2020 plan, MISO failed to learn the lessons from its queue problems and failed to plan for the transmission buildout needed in the next 15 years and beyond to realize the clean energy future. MISO also missed opportunities to capture efficiencies in regional transmission that save customers money and provide other benefits, such as increased reliability and reduced pollution.
MISO’s 2020 transmission plan, like many prior plans, is a lost opportunity to invest in the future that we know is coming. It is a lost opportunity to design and build a grid that capitalizes on clean, cheap energy in the Midwest to save customers money, retire costly, polluting fossil fuels, create jobs, and avoid the worst effects of climate change.
MISO has another chance to prepare for the future this year in its 2021 transmission plan. Let’s hope that it gets the message that planning for a clean energy future requires planning now for the future grid rather than waiting. The demand for more clean energy is already here.