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  • Writer's pictureAndy Kowalczyk

MISO’s Long Range Transmission Plan is a Transformative Vision for the Grid

Updated: May 11, 2022

For the last decade, the costs of maintaining a functional electric grid have been rising. This has been documented increasingly by industry experts, analysts and some grid operators across the seven Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs) in the U.S. It also comes at a time when the type of power resources we use are changing in response to declining costs, their high potential for job creation and economic development, and the critical need for a zero carbon electric grid vital to reducing climate warming greenhouse gas emissions.

The grid, however, will largely continue to be constrained by the kind of resources we use to deliver power to the cities and rural regions across the country. Rooftop solar, while growing, only makes up around 1% of all energy used in the U.S., and these resources are mostly connected to the grid to power through stretches that solar and batteries can’t cover. With new resources coming onto the grid that operate much differently than the old ones, there are accompanying infrastructure challenges. Power lines need to stretch from where power is created, to where power it’s needed, and this looks different for increasing solar and wind resources than it did for coal and gas on the grid decades ago.

Coal has to be sited near coal mines or near railways that deliver coal to power stations where it’s pulverized and burned in order to boil water for steam driven turbines creating power. Nuclear plants are sited near waterways to facilitate cooling. And power plants using fossil gas need to be connected to pipelines transporting gas to it for combustion, whether it’s to create steam or heat for a reciprocating engine.

There’s always a tradeoff in infrastructure for energy and that’s just the facts, but since our current system was mostly built to serve power plants that emit greenhouse gasses, it’s mostly not sufficient for resources that facilitate decarbonization.

What has changed about our energy mix, is that it’s shifting towards weather dependent resources with different infrastructure and siting needs. When siting wind and solar resources, the best place to put them is not by and large, the same places where coal or gas resources are sited. So when you shift towards resources that produce power without greenhouse gasses, it’s necessary to optimize this system for affordability and most of all reliability.

Brown is not the color I would've chosen for wind power, but note that wind is on track to overtake nuclear and is very near overtaking coal as a power generating resource in the U.S.

In many ways this overhaul of the grid has auspicious timing. We need to spend money to replace aging grid assets built in the 70’s and 80’s to serve a much different energy paradigm and power industry model. Part of the reason why we have Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs) to begin with is because of issues related to monopoly power and big, expensive power plants. Transmission, how it’s built and what for, by large electric utilities, has always been at the nucleus of our power system.

This is even more relevant to the challenges of adapting our power system, because transmission assets have an average 50 year lifespan. Many transmission assets that were built in the 70’s, were built to serve a fossil fuel heavy system that has also preserved a much more monopolistic grid. This leaves a golden opportunity to update the grid using new technology at our disposal that is reliant on a new locational siting paradigm, and one that requires a power system that could also address market power.

MISO’s Long Range Transmission Planning (LRTP) effort offers a glimpse into a possible path forward and way to stabilize investment in the bulk power grid. RTO’s like MISO are required by FERC to engage in transmission planning on a regional level that can facilitate collective benefits for their member states. With many of those states and member utilities preferring to address climate change through the pursuit of more zero emission resources, MISO has chosen to plan the transmission system of the future.

Looking at the generation shift as a result of these goals, and deeper trends towards decarbonization, MISO has engaged in deep consideration of how this impacts the system, and how to preserve reliability in pursuit of climate action for its utility members and consumers that are dependent on them to coordinate the delivery of roughly 99% of the electricity consumed across their footprint.

This was an effort that encompassed the development of 3 scenarios through an open stakeholder process, which are intended to model the changing energy resource mix spanning 20 years of transformation across 15 member states, an intensive exploration of impacts to their system, and a rigorous discussion of the benefits, and beneficiaries of these projects. This has all been to facilitate a concrete plan to address transmission needs for the power system of the future.

It’s anticipated that LRTP projects could be in service by 2030 if all goes well with the associated environmental reviews, permitting and construction processes that happen outside of MISO. That is assuming they will receive approval from MISO’s board in July, followed by approval from state regulators. At an average benefit to cost ratio of $2.60 of benefits for each $1 spent on the $10.6 Billion portfolio of projects it is certainly in the interest of state regulators and consumers.

These benefits are a conservative compilation of economic benefits that do not include the value of increased resilience and reliability that the LRTP lines provide. A certain level of reliability can be assumed for any set of transmission projects of this size, but cannot be ascribed to specific extreme events in the future for instance. There’s no such thing as a 100% accurate forecast on what the future brings, and that is not the definition of a forecast. However, we can look to the past.

Chart compiled using MISO data provided in table on slide 57 of the 'LRTP Tranche 1 Portfolio Detailed Business Case' from the March 22nd LRTP Workshop

When MISO last engaged in a large transmission planning effort a decade ago called the ‘Multi-Value Projects’, it was never anticipated that an event like Winter Storm Uri would happen, and those lines would be crucial in keeping power on in the North of their footprint. In this respect, we know that today’s clean energy power lines could be tomorrow’s reliability power lines.

This is a crucial point for the half of MISO that has seen no planning of this nature across Arkansas, Southeast Texas, Western Mississippi and Louisiana. Here, the need to construct a clean energy grid is even more important in the region’s pursuit of both a greater amount of renewables and corporate decarbonization goals. But there is also the looming specter of climate change and more frequent and costly extreme weather events threatening the grid. With a history devoid of planning of this type, the southern states in MISO could stand to benefit greatly from MISO’s LRTP effort.

This requires a shift in mindset across state regulatory bodies however. One that accounts for the value of long term transmission planning in controlling the costs associated with a rapidly transforming grid. This will take transformative thinking about the structure and design of the grid we use today. Furthermore, who benefits currently from this design, and what the promise is of a more efficient, competitive and resilient energy system. More importantly is the promise of a grid that meets the global challenge of reducing climate emissions, that provides energy while preserving clean air and water for generations to come.

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