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New England’s electricity transmission system needs a makeover. A new report shows how that could happen.

Chris Hunkeler
Flickr Creative Commons

New England’s electricity transmission system — the poles and wires that transport power across the region — needs a big makeover to stay on track with state-level climate goals, according to a new report.

RENEW Northeast, the nonprofit behind the report, focuses on promoting renewable energy in New England and New York. Their findings suggest the region needs to move fast to make these changes.

Sarah Jackson, who sits on RENEW Northeast’s board, says New England’s transition to clean energy will require big changes: The region will need to build a lot more capacity for transporting power from wind, solar and other sources, and to bring energy in from Canada.

“The system we have is not really to carry that around to where it needs to be,” says Jackson, who also serves as the Northeast climate and energy policy manager at The Nature Conservancy.

RENEW Northeast’s new report says a lack of transmission has already blocked renewable energy development in the region. Offshore wind farms face hundreds of millions of dollars in costs to upgrade power lines, and the report says wind and solar generators that are already up and running have been asked to turn off because the transmission system couldn’t handle them.

But the report also points toward solutions: If states in the region work together to update the grid, authors say, it could cut costs for everybody.

RENEW Northeast says states could, with their current authorities and objectives, begin soliciting projects that meet their transmission needs. Their report outlines options for regional collaboration on transmission upgrades, showing ways New England states could share the costs and benefits, based on how much transmission capacity they hope to bring online to meet their policy goals.

The report also notes that states have an added incentive to start updating their grid sooner rather than later: The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed in 2021, set aside $2.5 billion in funding for these kinds of transmission projects.

“We as a region, as the New England states, need to act quickly to coordinate in order to take advantage of those funds and get that money into New England to help us build out that infrastructure,” Jackson said.

What is transmission, anyway — and what’s the plan in New Hampshire?

The transmission system is responsible for handling our electricity, like a network of highways that connect our homes with power, explains Amro Farid, a professor of engineering at Dartmouth.

Farid wasn’t involved in the RENEW report, but he agrees with its big takeaway: If we want to take advantage of renewables like offshore wind or solar, we need to update our grid.

“Our transmission system was built based upon certain assumptions of where people are and where electric power is being generated, usually from coal, oil and natural gas as fuel sources,” he said.

But those assumptions aren’t necessarily true for the way we generate electricity now, or hope to in the future, using a lot more wind and solar power.

New Hampshire is the only New England state without binding climate goals, and is left out of many of RENEW Northeast’s calculations for cost sharing. The authors don’t project the state will be part of making contracts for additional transmission infrastructure through the process they suggest.

But even if New Hampshire’s not involved in these large-scale transmission projects, Jackson says, that doesn’t mean the state won’t see the benefits.

“We have a lot of concern coming from New Hampshire about how much this energy transition will cost,” she said. “Coordinated development of transmission has the potential to reduce costs across the region of this transition by hundreds of millions of dollars.”

More transmission can bring more renewables online quickly, Jackson says. Those can be cheaper than fossil fuels, lowering costs for consumers.

A recent report from state officials on offshore wind noted that New Hampshire could be an “attractive” place to connect offshore wind in the Gulf of Maine to the regional grid, but with the current transmission network, the state would only be able to connect “relatively modest” amounts of power.

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
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