The U.S. Department of Energy wants to accelerate permitting and financing for transmission projects currently under development by designating their proposed routes as National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors (NIETCs).
DOE was given the authority to identify these corridors in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and on Tuesday, Maria Robinson, director of the Grid Deployment Office, announced the department’s plan to implement that authority via a new “applicant-driven” and “route-specific” process.
Releasing a combined notice of intent and request for information on the new process, Robinson said DOE’s top priority, at least to start, will be on identifying NIETCs (pronounced “nit-cees”) for projects that are already being planned, even if they have not been permitted or financed.
“We’re looking to unlock critical federal investments and regulatory and permitting tools to spur urgent transmission investments needed in specific regions to improve reliability and resilience, as well as reduce consumer costs,” she said during a media briefing. “This approach to selecting corridors will focus on specific needs and targeted geographic locations and seeks to identify transmission corridors that help to ensure targeted and effective relief for American communities from life-threatening electric outages.”
Projects located within a NIETC would be able to tap into $2.5 billion in funding for public-private partnerships made available in the IIJA. The Inflation Reduction Act adds another $2 billion to the pot from its transmission financing loan program, Robinson said.
A NIETC designation “can also allow … FERC to grant permits within a [corridor] border in certain circumstances where states cannot or have not issued those permits after more than one year,” she said, referring to the commission’s “backstop” permitting authority established in the IIJA.
FERC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on its backstop permitting authority in December, with an extended comment period that ends on May 17 (RM22-7). (See FERC Moves to Implement New Backstop Transmission Siting Authority.)
The NOI lays out proposed guidelines for the potential applicants who will drive the process and the “route-specific” projects they will propose for NIETC designation.
Potential applicants will have “progressed beyond the preliminary concept and … begun actively routing the project and engaging in community and landowner outreach, land surveys or initiation of environmental compliance work,” the NOI says. “However, no particular stage of development is required for an applicant to seek potential designation.”
DOE’s definition of “route-specific” is particularly broad. Applicants will have to document how their projects balance “the need to ensure that the potential route is defined with sufficient specificity to allow for meaningful evaluation of the potential energy and environmental impacts of one or more transmission projects along that route, while also sufficient in size and scope to construct, maintain and safely operate one or more transmission projects in accordance with applicable regulatory requirements and reliability standards and accommodate routine route changes that often occur when siting and permitting infrastructure.”
The long list of the information an applicant would have to provide to get a NIETC designation includes the geographic boundaries and rationale for those boundaries; how the project would address existing or future transmission needs; and the “economic growth and vitality in the corridor or end markets served.”
Information on environmental impacts will need to be detailed enough for DOE to complete an environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). That covers everything from “potential adverse effects to cultural and historic resources” to “known or potential impacts” to the U.S. aviation and marine transportation systems, and to a project’s proposed use of previously disturbed lands.
The RFI seeks feedback on the NIETC guidelines, the structure of the application and designation process and how the impacts of any proposed route should be evaluated. It asks if the information requests outlined in the NOI might be “overly burdensome on respondents” but also if additional information should be included in applications.
Rob Gramlich, founder and president of industry consultants Grid Strategies, expects DOE will get a significant number of applications when it releases a request for proposals, possibly in the fall.
“It’s exciting to see this process finally, formally introduced,” Gramlich said in an interview with RTO Insider. “Transmission proponents have been recommending this type of process for a number of years. The department has suggested informally over the years that it would be open to applications for designation, but it’s never really had a formal process like it has introduced today.”
Christina Hayes, executive director of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, agreed. Advocates have been waiting for DOE to develop a NIETC designation process “that really is consistent with how these [transmission] projects are developed,” she said.
The NOI and RFI released Tuesday will be published in the Federal Register in the next four or five days, triggering a 45-day comment period, according to DOE. The department has also scheduled a public webinar on the proposed guidelines for May 17.
The History of NIETCs
The draft National Transmission Needs Study published in February documented huge gaps between existing lines and what will be needed to reach President Joe Biden’s goal of a decarbonized grid by 2035.
A 2022 study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimated that U.S. transmission capacity would have to grow 1.3 to 2.9 times by 2035. A 2021 study from Princeton University said a 60% increase in transmission may be needed by 2030, followed by a threefold increase by 2050.
DOE was first authorized to designate NIETCs by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, according to a department fact sheet. Following a study of grid congestion and constraints, DOE designated two broad NIETCs in 2007. The Mid-Atlantic corridor included counties in Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland and Virginia, and all of New Jersey, Delaware and D.C. The Southwest Area corridor covered areas in California and Arizona.
Recalling that effort, Gramlich said it was too broad. “Those were big, brawny corridors that looked like big blobs and Magic Marker lines across the country, which got everybody anywhere near the paths concerned about whether there’s going to be a transmission line in their front yard,” he said.
The applicant-driven approach “is much more surgical … focused on the actual route that’s likely to be used rather than, you know, 100 hypothetical routes that aren’t likely to be used,” Gramlich said.
Hayes was also optimistic that DOE has refocused “its efforts on how to deploy the transmission that’s needed for a transition to cleaner energy [and] electrification and to respond to extreme weather. … They’re focusing on where cost-effective, well planned transmission would be sited and [looking] at the corridors around those projects.”
DOE’s Robinson stressed that while a “NIETC designation can identify a specific corridor where transmission projects are needed, it does not establish a preference for a specific transmission project or cluster of projects that may be located within a designated corridor.”
The National Transmission Needs Study, which DOE aims to finalize this summer, will also be factored into NIETC designations, Robinson said. One of the study’s key findings is that new transmission that connects the country’s major electrical interconnection areas — East, West, Midwest and Texas — will provide the most value, especially during extreme weather events.
Keeping the Train on the Tracks
One of the IIJA’s more critical and controversial provisions gives FERC backstop siting authority, long desired by transmission developers and proponents but opposed by both red and blue states.
To qualify for this “backstop” permitting, a project has to be located in a NIETC. FERC can approve the project if it has been denied by state or local regulators, if they have taken no action for a year, or if they have conditioned approval on requirements that would either make a project financially unfeasible or unable to relieve congestion or other constraints on a line.
The NOPR issued in December would provide a “pre-application” process that a developer could begin before delays or denial of a permit reaches the one-year mark. It would also set up a 90-day period for a state to respond to a request for a backstop approval.
Hayes sees FERC’s backstop authority as an essential piece of the process for promoting transmission development. “We’re really excited to see how they are seeking to work with states by providing that extra 90 days after the one year for states to explain what they’re doing,” she said, while also setting up the pre-application filing process.
“They’re being really thoughtful about how to keep the train on the tracks while being mindful of allowing a process for the states,” she said. “DOE and FERC are thinking about ways to work together to move forward in a way that’s consistent with the statute, consistent with the need for thorough, legally durable environmental reviews, but also making sure that we’re able to deploy the kind of transmission that we need to meet our reliability goals, our electrification goals and our need for cost-effective planning.”