By Andy Kowalczyk
The energy transition from fossil fuels has been viewed from the sidelines by the deep south for a very long time. While the amount of renewable energy in many states has been accelerating rapidly in other states, there’s been a consistent lag in states like Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi and Southeast Texas. It’s often thought that politics is the primary driver, and it is, but it’s not the only thing limiting renewable energy. It turns out that the lack of investment in our infrastructure has been a key ingredient in keeping the deep south off the bench, and putting us in the renewable energy game.
Planning infrastructure that meets the challenges of a changing energy mix isn’t just an abstract concept though. Yesterday, an entity called the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) delivered such a plan when they made both a historic, and critically important decision to approve a grid infrastructure plan. This plan is designed to affordably and reliably enable enough renewable energy to power 12 million homes, and create 213,000 jobs over eleven north midwestern states in the coming decades.
While it’s not the same as a climate bill getting passed by a legislature, MISO’s Long Range Transmission Plan (LRTP) is the result of almost a year and half of extensive stakeholder discussions and engineering analysis to design a grid that fits a higher amount of renewable energy. The first step was for MISO to create three models of their future footprint with more solar and wind, and then to run simulations to see where the strain is on this grid of the future. What they came up with in this first set of projects is a grid that is more flexible, and better suited for the grid that we not only need to reduce climate emissions, but to increase the resilience of the grid. But this plan is only part of what we need to deal with climate change, and none of these projects help the south.
Nearly 100% of the energy used across the U.S. is transported across the network of high voltage transmission wires in Regional Transmission Organizations (RTO’s) like MISO, and unorganized markets. The important point here is that while the distribution poles on the street outside our homes carry the electricity to us, lighting up our lives, the transmission system connects us to the power plants, wind farms and fields of solar that create electricity we use.
With so many power plants, wind farms, and fields of solar throughout its fifteen state region, MISO’s job is to ensure that electricity gets to where it’s needed affordably and reliably. The role of MISO is to make this happen across many electric utility territories, instead of trading power between vertically integrated monopoly utilities in an adhoc fashion. This coordination has been happening since their organization started in 2001. Later, MISO grew considerably when the utilities Entergy, CLECO and a smattering of Co-Ops and municipal utilities joined their footprint. Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Southeast Texas, became a sub-region in MISO referred to henceforth as ‘MISO South’. While it’s all MISO’s territory across the fifteen states, these four states have always been an outlier to the region and have lagged behind in renewable energy and resilience.
Those two things should be very important for the south. The dependence on fossil fuels for jobs and economic development in MISO South has left the subregion largely stagnating and more polluted, while more frequent extreme storms have strained even the coffers of home insurance companies. When most folks think of climate action in MISO South, they don’t think about the grid, but the electric ‘transmission’ grid that MISO oversees and offers important planning advice on, is a critical component to the future of these four states and keeping energy bills low.
Being part of this organization since 2013 has saved Entergy customers more than $1.3 billion across four states, but it could be a lot more if we had a grid that connected to more affordable resources. The projects approved yesterday in the north are a perfect example of how to plan for a renewable energy future that is efficient and affordable. These LRTP projects will save electric utility customers in MISO North an average of $2.60 (average benefit to cost ratio) for every dollar spent on them. Subtract the $10.4 billion cost to build these projects from an estimated $37.4 billion in economic benefits across eleven states, and you get a net savings of $27 billion for utility customers across this region. If the south had been included in this first set of projects, we would likely have seen significantly increased savings for customers in the south too, but because of a lack of significant support in the south outside of some standout leadership from New Orleans, LRTP planning for the region has been deferred until 2023.
This is a frustrating predicament, because MISO could provide valuable planning advice via the LRTP effort to the regulators of electric utilities like the City Council of New Orleans, and the Public Service and Utility Commissions of Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Arkansas. Because of a bad history in the region making their efforts seem unwelcome or not appropriate for the region and its fossil fuel heavy grid, MISO has been reluctant to plan in the region, and large shareholder-owned utilities like Entergy either can’t, or won’t provide this type of analysis on how to prepare for the grid for a future with more renewables. The ongoing status quo of failing to plan, needs to change.
We’re seeing the outcome of this with more frequent power outages related to extreme weather events (Hurricanes Laura and Ida, Winter Storm Uri), and increasing power bills related to rising natural gas costs. But whether or not we are talking about savings in terms of dollars – future generations in the south can’t afford and shouldn’t be forced to pay for endless rolling blackouts and an untenable dependence on climate polluting gas power plants.
It’s a pivotal moment in MISO South, and the region has an opportunity to benefit significantly from the LRTP process. To refuse or stall a plan that helps expand renewable energy access in the region, and to do so while saving money and making the grid stronger would be a major mistake for utility regulators in the region. But MISO is proposing in 2023 and 2024 to pursue planning in the region. With support from state public utility commissioners and the City Council of New Orleans in MISO South, we can escape the cycle of investing in ever more expensive power plants and storm repairs for an under-invested and under-planned grid for the region.
In truth, we need to be moving even faster to plan for the energy transition, but with leadership from the regulators of our utilities we can plot a new course towards prosperity and a livable future for the region.
Andy Kowalczyk lives in New Orleans, LA and has represented 350 New Orleans in the MISO Environmental Sector, which the organization is a member of. This coalition of clean energy and environmental advocates work extensively across the MISO footprint including MISO South. Through continued engagement, this representation has been critical in the formation of the LRTP process, as well the resulting first group of lines in the North.