An explosion in proposed clean energy ventures has overwhelmed the system for connecting new power sources to homes and businesses.
Plans to install 3,000 acres of solar panels in Kentucky and Virginia are delayed for years. Wind farms in Minnesota and North Dakota have been abruptly canceled. And programs to encourage Massachusetts and Maine residents to adopt solar power are faltering.
The energy transition poised for takeoff in the United States amid record investment in wind, solar and other low-carbon technologies is facing a serious obstacle: The volume of projects has overwhelmed the nation’s antiquated systems to connect new sources of electricity to homes and businesses.
So many projects are trying to squeeze through the approval process that delays can drag on for years, leaving some developers to throw up their hands and walk away.
More than 8,100 energy projects — the vast majority of them wind, solar and batteries — were waiting for permission to connect to electric grids at the end of 2021, up from 5,600 the year before, jamming the system known as interconnection.
That’s the process by which electricity generated by wind turbines or solar arrays is added to the grid — the network of power lines and transformers that moves electricity from the spot where it is created to cities and factories. There is no single grid; the United States has dozens of electrical networks, each overseen by a different authority.
PJM Interconnection, which operates the nation’s largest regional grid, stretching from Illinois to New Jersey, has been so inundated by connection requests that last year it announced a freeze on new applications until 2026, so that it can work through a backlog of thousands of proposals, mostly for renewable energy.
It now takes roughly four years, on average, for developers to get approval, double the time it took a decade ago.
And when companies finally get their projects reviewed, they often face another hurdle: the local grid is at capacity, and they are required to spend much more than they planned for new transmission lines and other upgrades.
Many give up. Fewer than one-fifth of solar and wind proposals actually make it through the so-called interconnection queue, according to research from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
“From our perspective, the interconnection process has become the No. 1 project killer,” said Piper Miller, vice president of market development at Pine Gate Renewables, a major solar power and battery developer.
After years of breakneck growth, large-scale solar, wind and battery installations in the United States fell 16 percent in 2022, according to the American Clean Power Association, a trade group. It blamed supply chain problems but also lengthy delays connecting projects to the grid.
Electricity production generates roughly one-quarter of the greenhouse gases produced by the United States; cleaning it up is key to President Biden’s plan to fight global warming. The landmark climate bill he signed last year provides $370 billion in subsidies to help make low-carbon energy technologies — like wind, solar, nuclear or batteries — cheaper than fossil fuels.
But the law does little to address many practical barriers to building clean energy projects, such as permitting holdups, local opposition or transmission constraints. Unless those obstacles get resolved, experts say, there’s a risk that billions in federal subsidies won’t translate into the deep emissions cuts envisioned by lawmakers.
“It doesn’t matter how cheap the clean energy is,” said Spencer Nelson, managing director of research at ClearPath Foundation, an energy-focused nonprofit. “If developers can’t get through the interconnection process quickly enough and get enough steel in the ground, we won’t hit our climate change goals.”
Waiting in line for yearsIn the largest grids, such as those in the Midwest or Mid-Atlantic, a regional operator manages the byzantine flow of electricity from hundreds of different power plants through thousands of miles of transmission lines and into millions of homes.
Before a developer can build a power plant, the local grid operator must make sure the project won’t cause disruptions — if, for instance, existing power lines get more electricity than they can handle, they could overheat and fail. After conducting a detailed study, the grid operator might require upgrades, such as a line connecting the new plant to a nearby substation. The developer usually bears this cost. Then the operator moves on to study the next project in the queue.
This process was fairly routine when energy companies were building a few large coal or gas plants each year. But it has broken down as the number of wind, solar and battery projects has risen sharply over the past decade, driven by falling costs, state clean-energy mandates and, now, hefty federal subsidies.
“The biggest challenge is just the sheer volume of projects,” said Ken Seiler, who leads system planning at PJM Interconnection. “There are only so many power engineers out there who can do the sophisticated studies we need to do to ensure the system stays reliable, and everyone else is trying to hire them, too.”
PJM, the grid operator, now has 2,700 energy projects under study — mostly wind, solar and batteries — a number that has tripled in just three years. Wait times can now reach four years or more, which prompted PJM last year to pause new reviews and overhaul its processes.
Delays can upend the business models of renewable energy developers. As time ticks by, rising materials costs can erode a project’s viability. Options to buy land expire. Potential customers lose interest.