If we can’t build things, we can’t tackle climate change: potential solutions

Executive Editor

The U.S. government, venture capitalists and academics are looking for solutions to a messy trio of local opposition, outdated permitting processes and backlogged bureaucracy that’s threatening to upend America’s rapid shift to clean energy.

Cipher scrutinizes the technological transformations we need to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Technologies can’t be transformative if we can’t build them at scale. Last week, we looked at the hurdles to building new technologies. This week we’re examining potential solutions.

These solutions include:

  • Recent actions by the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
  • Congressional action.
  • Increased attention on this topic among climate tech investors.
  • A university-led effort to mediate impasses over clean energy projects.

FERC, an independent agency tasked with overseeing the nation’s electricity and other energy infrastructure, took a first step earlier this month toward expediting backlogged applications of developers seeking to connect wind and solar projects to the grid in a process called the interconnection queue.

“We are witnessing unprecedented demand for new resources seeking to interconnect to the transmission grid,” said FERC Chairman Rich Glick at an agency meeting announcing the moves. “And queue delays are hindering customers’ access to new, low-cost generation.”

The proposed reforms, which must undergo public and agency review, include approving projects in clusters instead of one by one, which has created the cascading Rubik’s Cube problem we mentioned last week.

Some regional transmission organizations—entities that oversee electricity in many parts of the country FERC regulates—have already begun implementing similar types of reforms.

FERC’s move earlier this month follows an even more significant regulation the agency began work on in April. That new rule would require transmission providers to do longer-term and more forward-looking planning. Currently, providers make shorter-term plans that don’t necessarily account for future, climate-related changes in energy needs.

With longer-term planning, costs to upgrade the grid would be better spread out across more entities benefiting from the upgrades. That would help partly ease the cost allocation problems we covered last week, which affect power lines the most, according to Rob Gramlich, founder and president of Grid Strategies LLC, a consulting firm.

Congress and the Biden administration are also exploring ways to help resolve these problems, though progress has been limited.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes some reform initiatives, such as giving the federal government more authority to approve power lines over state opposition, although experts say it’s not likely to be invoked.

The bill formerly known as the Build Back Better Act called for a tax credit for certain types of new power lines. That would be a big boost—if the credit makes it into any smaller legislation Congress may pass.

Venture capitalists are also pondering how to tackle opposition to new clean energy projects.

Eric Toone, a leader on the investment team for Breakthrough Energy Ventures, one of the world’s most prolific venture capital investors in climate technologies, expressed concern about the gap between innovation and deployment.

“The name of the game is to solve the climate change problem,” Toone said. “Coming up with the technological solution is one piece of it. If I come up with a technological solution I can’t deploy, what have I accomplished?”

That’s prompted the firm to invest in a few startups working on tech-oriented solutions, including VEIR, which launched in 2019 to develop superconductor power cables that it says can deliver more electricity with a smaller footprint.

Dawn Lippert, founding partner of Earthshot Ventures and founder and CEO of Elemental Excelerator, a global climate technology investor and nonprofit organization, underscored the importance of startups engaging local communities where they will operate.

Lippert challenges startups to engage early and productively with communities, including hiring locally and working with local partners. Too often the focus is only on developing the physical aspect of the technology, she said.

We don’t want to end up with a bunch of climate technology companies complaining about how they can’t get things permitted and communities pushing back.
Dawn Lippert, cleanteach investor

Larry Susskind, a professor at MIT whose study on opposition to renewable energy projects we mentioned last week, said developers need to change their tune.

“When the private developers continue trying to buy state or local level support for projects prior to engaging people most likely to be affected by them, renewable energy projects will continue to face delays and cancellations,” Susskind said.

He is working to launch a Renewable Energy Clinic at MIT next year, which would serve as a third-party mediator for projects that have reached an impasse.

Government regulators should work with developers and local communities to get pre-approval for development in certain areas, Susskind said, pointing to Maine as a successful example with offshore wind.

“You need a process that speeds things up by slowing down in the beginning,” Susskind said. “We should get pre-approvals in the right way so categories of things can go ahead.”

Editor’s noteBreakthrough Energy Ventures is affiliated with the broader Breakthrough Energy network, which supports Cipher.