Building new high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) power lines in the United States will help the nation’s aging power grid handle more renewable energy. It also promises to sharply cut emissions that cause climate change. But the U.S. electricity transmission system is saddled with a sprawling regulatory process that vets proposed long-distance projects at a glacial pace. In the West, it can involve as many as nine federal agencies. States sometimes delegate their role to multiple agencies. Even counties can get involved in the deliberations. The upshot is that going through the legal hoops and keeping investment capital at the ready for several of the proposed lines has set back construction for years. Congress tried to solve this problem in 2005 and failed. In 2011, the Obama administration, which supports many of the projects, picked seven pending interstate AC and DC power lines, promising to push them through this bureaucratic mess by forming a “rapid response team for transmission.” That produced a hopeful moment but the leading lines are still running through the gantlet of regulators some still not approved. Two such proposals, one sourced in Wyoming to move power to California and another sourced in Kansas to move power to eastern U.S. have been working for nine and six years respectively. Congress foresaw this problem in 2005 and tried to heal the process with an energy law that allows states to form interstate compacts to streamline transmission planning but it has never been used. Instead, you find counties resisting the authority of states, much as states resist the overarching authority of the federal government.
Some forms of energy transmission are easier to arrange in the United States. If these projects were natural gas pipelines, for example, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would be the final arbiter of whether and where they went and how much they could charge for gas. Electricity transmission, however, has always had multiple regulators. Private utilities dominate the construction of transmission lines and rejected government involvement in an expanded system as a waste of taxpayers’ money. During the 1920s, seven private utility holding companies controlled 60 percent of the power in the United States. But the development of hydroelectric power in the West brought two powerful government agencies into the picture. And in the 1930s and ’40s, major hydroelectric dams and transmission lines were built by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers. Farm groups became involved because at first the electricity from dams was regarded as a side benefit to controlling major rivers and providing irrigation. That changed quickly during the New Deal era when projects like the Hoover and Grand Coulee dams began generating and transmitting substantial amounts of electricity to rural areas that had never had it before. The electricity sales eventually repaid the government’s investments. The Bureau of Reclamation backed out of the transmission business in the mid-1970s, when it was felt that electric transmission was finally adequate to serve the needs of the West. The advent of big HVDC lines to carry renewable energy, however, has opened a new era, and in the United States so far, it has been private entrepreneurs who are leading the way.