Interconnection: A Bottleneck for the Green Transition
Written By: Leila Khalid
Edited By: Justin Weir
As the world attempts to transition to a green economy, infrastructure-related issues have produced consistent complications. From solar farms to lithium-ion battery production, building sufficient and sustainable infrastructure is a critical step in the energy transition, and often goes overlooked. In many cases the existence of robust infrastructure is assumed away, being taken for granted.
One of the most crucial infrastructure challenges we face is interconnection. An increase in demand for renewable energy, spurred by carbon reduction commitments, has created an unprecedented race to establish transmission lines capable of connecting the existing energy grid to new green energy projects. However, the current interconnection process is filled with bottlenecks and shortages, and must be transformed in order to meet our growing needs in time.
There are numerous interconnection projects underway, aimed at energy transmission across longer distances, and with greater speed than ever before. NeuConnect, a massive project consisting of 725 km of land and sea cables, plans to be the first direct energy link between the United Kingdom and Germany. According to the project’s developers, NeuConnect will provide “much needed resilience, security and flexibility in GB and Germany” (NeuConnect Interconnector, 2023). The benefits will be significant, but successfully implementing Neuconnect has proved to be a long and difficult process — the timeline has already been delayed four years. Several other major European projects, seen in the image below, have experienced similar major delays (Wallis & Millard, 2023). The United States is no different in this aspect, where developers have had to wait years longer than expected in order to complete their projects (Popovich and Plumer, 2023). So: why do these delays occur, and how can we remedy them for the future?
Source: Financial Times
Barriers to Interconnection
Producing new interconnection systems and connecting them to the energy grid is no simple task. The increases in expected length of interconnection projects have also complicated difficulties for supply chains, making it harder to keep up. HVDC (high-voltage direct current) cables are used for long projects in order to minimize electricity losses along the way, but require raw materials that are increasingly difficult to obtain. As shown below, these complex cables require wrapping materials such as copper in several layers of insulation (Tian et al., 2021). In fact, the process is so meticulous that production occurs at only one meter per minute (Millard, 2023).
Source: Tian et al.
Once developers endure the difficult process of acquiring their cables, the installation process also requires significant technical expertise. According to Siemens Energy — a German energy development company hired to complete part of the NeuConnect project — a current shortage of skilled and qualified workers represents the largest barrier to implementing interconnection. They claim to have needed to hire 700 new engineers in 2022 alone in order to keep up with demand (Wallis & Millard, 2023). Projects like NeuConnect, which span significant lengths underwater, are especially challenging, requiring rigorously trained operators and specially-modified ships (Khan, 2015). These technical and physical limitations are key barriers for interconnection — but there also remains the issue of bureaucracy, particularly in the United States.
The Interconnection Queue
As an early adopter of electric power infrastructure, the US power grid was built regionally, in a non-uniform manner — a patchwork effort that varied across the country (Penrod, 2022). In the modern era, these non-standardized regional systems generated a bureaucratic nightmare, due to the ambiguity surrounding installation locations. The lack of transparency between regional transmission systems and developers has meant that some project teams have applied for interconnection before even knowing if their project is feasible (Penrod, 2022). The system works on a first-come first-serve basis, where projects that apply first are given priority. As the waitlist continues to grow, an increasing number of developers are applying earlier and earlier, creating a list filled with early-stage or even speculative projects, slowing down approval times for completed or near-completed projects (Penrod, 2022). This waitlist, referred to as the ‘interconnection queue’, has grown to unexpected heights.
Although it slows implementation of new energy projects, the mere existence of an interconnection queue is also a positive indicator — demonstrating the abundance of renewable energy projects underway in the US. As of 2023, there are about 1,3000 GW worth of renewable energy projects in the queue, equal to 30% more than the US’ current entire electricity supply (McDonnell, 2023). If all the projects in the queue are approved and successfully implemented, the US will be well on its way to achieving its goal of 80% renewable energy by 2030 (Mai, 2023).
The extreme delays in the US have led to calls for reform by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). In 2023, the FERC established reform rules in order to ameliorate and accelerate the interconnection queue problem. To start, they suggest that regional transmissions must be built where they are most needed, not simply where they are the cheapest to install (Penrod, 2022). Furthermore, the FERC implemented a first-ready, first-serve cluster-based policy in order to eliminate the speculative projects hoarding time and space in the queue. The policy prioritizes projects that are further along in the process, and studies them in groups in order to address more projects at once (Howland, 2023). Additionally, the FERC announced penalties for projects that miss deadlines, giving project developers further incentive to apply only after being certain that they are feasible (Penrod, 2022).
In addition to bureaucratic changes, the interconnection problem could be addressed by improving interconnection and storage technology. Developers have begun to invest in energy storage and optimization software in order to avoid large transmission upgrades (Penrod, 2022). Meanwhile, cable manufacturers are moving away from heavy reliance on copper, and have developed aluminum cables as alternatives (Wallis & Millard, 2023).
With technological advances and significant regulatory changes, the interconnection queue is on track to improve. However, experts warn that more change is needed, and that a true transition will require “holistic reform” of our transmission systems (Howland, 2023). Although the process will be lengthy and requires significant changes moving forward, solving interconnection issues remains a key step in making the clean energy transition a reality.
Howland, E. (2023, August 4). FERC interconnection rule may not speed process in much of US: Experts. Utility Dive. http://www.utilitydive.com/news/ferc-interconnection-queue-reform-spp-miso-pjm-rto/689965/.
Khan, F. (2015, January 23). How are major undersea cables laid in the ocean?. The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/how-are-major-undersea-cables-laid-in-the-ocean-9993232.html.
Mai, H. J. (2023, February 2). Energy experts share how the U.S. can reach Biden’s renewable energy goals. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2023/02/02/1148370220/biden-renewable-energy-goals.
McDonnell, T. (2023, March 3). Meet the new obstacle to Green Power: The interconnection queue. Semafor. http://www.semafor.com/article/03/03/2023/meet-the-new-obstacle-to-green-power-the-interconnection-queue.
Penrod, E. (2022, August 22). Why the energy transition broke the U.S. interconnection system. Utility Dive. http://www.utilitydive.com/news/energy-transition-interconnection-reform-ferc-qcells/628822/.
Popovich, N., & Plumer, B. (2023, August 9). Why the U.S. Electric Grid isn’t ready for the energy transition. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2023/06/12/climate/us-electric-grid-energy-transition.html.
Tian, F., Zhang, S., & Hou, C. (2021). Effects of trapping characteristics on space charge and electric field distributions in HVDC cable under electrothermal stress. Energies, 14(5), 1313. https://doi.org/10.3390/en14051313.
Wallis, F., & Millard, R. (2023, July 30). Will there be enough cables for the Clean Energy Transition?. Financial Times. http://www.ft.com/content/c88c0c6d-c4b2-4c16-9b51-7b8beed88d75.
What is NeuConnect?. NeuConnect Interconnector. (2023, March 29). https://neuconnect-interconnector.com/what-is-neuconnect/.