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Transmission Lines Are Vital In The Shift To Clean Energy. But They're A Hard Sell

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Shifting the U.S. to clean electricity will require a lot more major transmission lines. Those can be controversial and hard to get approved. That's something the infrastructure bill in Congress aims to change. Rachel McDevitt of StateImpact Pennsylvania explains.

RACHEL MCDEVITT, BYLINE: This is what it sounds like underneath an electric transmission line in Pennsylvania's York County.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHOOSHING NOISE)

MCDEVITT: These aren't the wooden telephone poles that connect to your home. These are giant metal towers strung with high-voltage wires that can carry electricity long distances.

DESTENIE NOCK: They're not the sexy part of energy transition.

MCDEVITT: Destenie Nock at Carnegie Mellon University gets why people don't want these things running through their backyards.

NOCK: The wind and the solar is the sexy part, and the transmission is kind of like that third cousin you brought to the party because you didn't want them - you don't want to feel bad about leaving them out.

MCDEVITT: But more transmission is crucial to help carry more wind and solar energy that is usually generated far from where most people live. It can be a hard sell. Nearby, fourth-generation farmer Barron Shaw is looking out over his orchard of squat apple trees.

BARRON SHAW: My family ancestors built this house on the hill here in 1862 during the Civil War, so we have quite deep roots in the land here.

MCDEVITT: So he was alarmed a few years ago when a company called Transource wanted to build a new transmission line through his property. His orchards increasingly rely on customers who come to pick their own fruit.

SHAW: And they don't just come here because we have great food - which we do - but they come here because it's beautiful. And you know what? No matter how you dress up a power line, it's never going to be beautiful.

MCDEVITT: Shaw joined a group of landowners to fight the line. Then, this year, Pennsylvania's utility regulator denied the project, saying there was no need for it and that it offered little benefit to Pennsylvanians. This gets at another major challenge to expanding the country's energy infrastructure.

BEN KROPOSKI: You have many, many policy barriers all the way from states to local counties to the utilities.

MCDEVITT: Ben Kroposki is with the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado. He says transmission lines are like highways for electricity. Some are crowded and slow. They'll need more lanes to carry clean electricity to do things like heat homes and charge electric cars. That will take more really large transmission lines to, for example, move power from a wind farm on the Great Plains to cities on the East Coast. But Kroposki says, right now, local regulators don't have to consider climate goals, just whether the people they serve need it. And at this very minute, maybe they don't.

KROPOSKI: Our system's working. The lights are on in your house, so it must be working.

MCDEVITT: Rob Gramlich of Grid Strategies says that makes it hard to launch long-term projects that can help create a carbon-free energy network by mid-century.

ROB GRAMLICH: If they can just say, hell, no, my state doesn't like it or benefit from it, even if half the country does benefit from it - you know, currently, the process ends there.

MCDEVITT: The infrastructure bill in Congress aims to smooth these problems. It and other measures could give federal regulators more authority over where to put power lines. It also offers billions of dollars for energy infrastructure, including new power line construction.

GRAMLICH: Maybe those bills do 10% of the job. I wish it was more. That's a very helpful 10%. And maybe it gets us going, and maybe we get some momentum out of it.

MCDEVITT: There'd be another boost if Democrats push through their budget reconciliation plan - a 30% tax credit for building new transmission lines. The next challenge would be figuring out where to put them. For NPR News, I'm Rachel McDevitt in Harrisburg.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.