Concern that electricity prices in New England are too high is constant. Yet, a key cause of increasing prices is usually ignored: the high cost of transmission lines built to meet infrequent periods of peak electric demand. Over the last 15 years, charges for this reliability-focused transmission have skyrocketed and continue to climb. Since 2002, consumers have footed the bill for $12 billion in projects in New England, where transmission spending is relatively higher than in the rest of the country and steadily growing. Costs are passed directly on to ratepayers, causing electric prices to increase and raising consumer bills. Acadia Center’s new report, “The Hidden Costs of Energy: Overpaying for an Outdated System,” highlights four basic problems that contribute to increasing transmission costs and offers recommendations for reforming the way we plan and pay for the grid.
Ensuring that the grid is reliable is critical to the region’s economic, energy, and environmental future, but the way electric transmission is planned and financed gives utilities incentives to maximize spending on transmission instead of working in the interest of consumers. The current selection, planning, and financing processes are stacked in favor of transmission lines that can earn utilities upward of 11% guaranteed annual returns. Viable alternatives for meeting reliability – some of which are both cleaner and cheaper – do not offer such high returns, and are not adequately considered. Without significant changes, transmission lines will remain the inevitable outcome of all reliability planning practices, and it will be impossible for New England consumers to have confidence that the billions of dollars we are all paying for new transmission lines are the best choices to clean our air and contribute to a healthier environment.
Some new transmission investments are needed to meet regional policy goals of opening opportunities to access renewable power supplies. Others may be needed for reliability. But it is hard to distinguish the transmission investments that are truly necessary for reliability from the transmission investments that could have been avoided.
Experience has shown that New England can mitigate the high cost of transmission construction by using local energy resources. These local alternatives include geographically targeted energy efficiency and demand response that reduces demand for electricity, as well as roof-top solar, battery storage, and efficient combined heat and power. These technologies have proven themselves capable of reducing grid stress and deferring transmission construction. In Boothbay Harbor, Maine, the Boothbay Smart Grid Pilot spent $2.6 million on energy efficiency, demand response, battery storage, and solar resources instead of building an $18.7 million transmission line. Consolidated Edison is deploying energy efficiency and demand response in its Brooklyn/Queens territory to avoid costly grid upgrades and deliver benefits of greater than $500 million to consumers. Energy efficiency investments were credited with deferring the need to construct $416 million in transmission upgrades in Vermont and New Hampshire. These local energy resources are smaller and quicker to deploy than building a new transmission line and can be customized to the particular reliability need being addressed. Local energy resources represent smart and economic solutions to grid reliability needs.
But even with proven successes of local energy resources, the region keeps building more transmission lines. To understand why, you need only look to the economics and politics of transmission construction that have contributed to the increase in transmission line investment. These drivers are described in greater detail in Acadia Center’s “The Hidden Costs of Energy: Overpaying for an Outdated System.”
Reliability-focused transmission lines being built now represent a 30-plus year wager on the region’s energy needs. And these investments are being made before the region has made the important determination of what transmission enhancements may be needed to integrate the renewable generators that will help meet clean energy policy goals, or what gains can be realized through greater reliance on small distributed generation like rooftop solar. Instead, utilities and grid regulators continue down the path of building expensive transmission lines to meet the region’s current resource mix and reliability needs, with little regard for how those needs might change. Any missed opportunity to meet projected reliability needs while promoting renewable resources is a costly mistake. Overestimates are wasteful and cost the region; they divert capital that could be used to make the grid more resilient with local resources and help promote a diverse and cleaner set of energy resources.
In “The Hidden Costs of Energy: Overpaying for an Outdated System,” Acadia Center offers recommendations to reform the system and thereby prevent the region from facing continued increases in transmission cost, while also furthering regional policy goals like promoting cleaner energy and stronger communities. Check out the full report to read more about the problems with our present transmission policies and Acadia Center’s recommendations for reform.