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Power line bill gets traction in debt limit deal

Measure aims to move clean energy from where it is generated to regions where it is needed

The legislation would speed the approval of new power lines.
The legislation would speed the approval of new power lines. (AFP via Getty Images)

Legislation to encourage the movement of electricity when demand is high to neighboring regions in the U.S. could be folded into a broader deal to raise the limit on the amount the federal government is allowed to borrow to pay its bills.

A draft bill from Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., and Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., that has not been released publicly, could be included in the broader debt package, a Senate staffer said.

That bill would require different patches of the U.S. electrical grids, known as transmission planning regions, to be capable of moving a minimum of 30 percent of their power when demand is highest to adjacent regions, according to a summary.

This sort of flexibility in power markets could allow electricity to flow where it is needed during storms, like Uri, which took down much of the Texas grid in 2021, or rolling blackouts.

To win Republican support for the transmission bill, Democrats would agree to narrow some provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act, a 1970s law that governs much of the permitting process.

The Democrats’ offering joins the legislative smorgasbord of bills about permitting this Congress as lawmakers negotiate a bill to lift the so-called debt ceiling before the Treasury Department is unable to process and pay federal debt.

Peters said moving power nationwide that doesn’t produce greenhouse gas emissions is vital. 

“It’s important for getting clean energy from where it is — solar in Arizona — to Detroit, to where it needs to be,” he said.

Negotiators sounded optimistic Thursday, though no face-to-face meetings were scheduled and hard-line Republicans in the House said they wanted to pass only a debt bill (HR 2811) the chamber already passed.

A separate permitting proposal from Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman  Thomas R. Carper , D-Del., and Sen. Brian Schatz , D-Hawaii, would speed up environmental permits by requiring a two-year deadline and reaffirming that they must consider the cumulative and indirect environmental effects of a project, including human-made greenhouse gas emissions.

It would also direct the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to write rules for regional electrical grids and the movement of electricity between such grids.

Bills from Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., would also limit how long environmental reviews may take for projects, like pipelines, roads and dredging developments.

Barrasso’s bill would increase oil and gas leasing and lift a ban on coal leasing on federal land.

And Sen. Joe Manchin III , D-W.Va., has his own bill on the topic, a reprisal of legislation from last Congress, when he tried but did not succeed in attaching it to a defense policy bill.

The Hickenlooper-Peters legislation would lower electricity prices and save power customers hundreds of millions of dollars per transmission line, according to the summary, which cites National Renewable Energy Laboratory research.

When 90 percent of Texas lost power during Uri, in 2021, parts of the state retained electricity — El Paso, parts of the Texas Panhandle and regions in the east — because they’re on different power grids than the state’s primary grid.

Transmission between the Texas grid and external power grids could have helped the majority of Texans without electricity two years ago.

“Transmission ultimately presents a two-way value proposition: energy-rich communities profit off of their natural resources – fossil, renewable, and nuclear – and American families and businesses see energy costs go down,” the summary concludes. “Ultimately, everyone benefits from a more reliable and resilient grid.”

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