Renewable Energy SmartPod

Transmission talk with 'grid geek' Rob Gramlich

October 19, 2021 Sean McMahon Season 1 Episode 15
Transmission talk with 'grid geek' Rob Gramlich
Renewable Energy SmartPod
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Renewable Energy SmartPod
Transmission talk with 'grid geek' Rob Gramlich
Oct 19, 2021 Season 1 Episode 15
Sean McMahon

Few people know more about the policies that shape the US grid than Rob Gramlich, the founder and president of Grid Strategies. With more and more renewables coming online (and interconnection queues getting longer and longer), Rob joins the show to talk about all the challenges the US grid is facing and what can be done to overcome them.

Rob also delves into the details of what is in the infrastructure bills currently circulating around Capitol Hill. What are the 'must-haves' that need to be in the legislation? And what are some things the bills should include, but don't.

I also throw a couple dinner party questions at Rob. As in, what information about the grid does he share when he is at a dinner party full of grid newbies? And what do grid gurus talk about when they all gather around the dinner table?


The Conversation - Why banning financing for fossil fuel projects in Africa isn’t a climate solution - Benjamin Attia and Morgan Bazilian

World Economic Forum - Namibia is poised to become the renewable energy hub of Africa - President Hage Geingob of Namibia

More resources:

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Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Few people know more about the policies that shape the US grid than Rob Gramlich, the founder and president of Grid Strategies. With more and more renewables coming online (and interconnection queues getting longer and longer), Rob joins the show to talk about all the challenges the US grid is facing and what can be done to overcome them.

Rob also delves into the details of what is in the infrastructure bills currently circulating around Capitol Hill. What are the 'must-haves' that need to be in the legislation? And what are some things the bills should include, but don't.

I also throw a couple dinner party questions at Rob. As in, what information about the grid does he share when he is at a dinner party full of grid newbies? And what do grid gurus talk about when they all gather around the dinner table?


The Conversation - Why banning financing for fossil fuel projects in Africa isn’t a climate solution - Benjamin Attia and Morgan Bazilian

World Economic Forum - Namibia is poised to become the renewable energy hub of Africa - President Hage Geingob of Namibia

More resources:

Sign up today to receive the Renewable Energy SmartBrief.

Emerson - Consider It Solved

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I may receive a commission at no extra cost to you.

Sign up for the Renewable Energy SmartBrief

Follow the show on Twitter @RenewablesPod

(Note: This transcript was created using artificial intelligence. It has not been edited verbatim.)

Sean McMahon  00:09

What’s up everyone and welcome to another episode of the Renewable Energy SmartPod. I’m your host Sean McMahon and my guest today is Rob Gramlich, the founder and president of Grid Strategies. Virtually every episode of this podcast has focused on technologies and trends that are playing a role in the energy transition ... but all the wind turbines and solar panels in the world can’t do much if there is no way to first connect them to the grid … and then get that renewable energy moving to where it needs to go. Rob is a self-described grid geek, so he’s here to dive into all the challenges the US grid is facing .. and some of the potential solutions. Plus, few people know more about what is in the current infrastructure bills circulating around Capitol Hill than Rob, so he is gonna outline the most essential elements of those proposals. What are the nice-to-haves and what are the need-to-haves.

After my conversation with Rob wraps up … be sure to stick around for the PodBrief segment of the show. With COP26 just around the corner, most of the headlines are about the role countries like the US, UK and China will play in Glasgow, but it’s important to remember the conference of the parties is a conference of nations large and smallI. So today’s PodBrief highlights progress being made on the energy front in some key countries in Africa. 

And remember, if you want your renewables news in email format as well as podcast, head on over to and signup for the Renewable Energy SmartBrief. And as always … you can follow us on Twitter where our handle is @RenewablesPod. 

Before I kick off my conversation with Rob, here’s a quick word from the exclusive sponsor of today episode: Emerson

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Sean McMahon  02:09

Thank you, everyone for joining me today. My guest is Rob Gramlich, the founder and president of Grid Strategies. How you doing today, Rob?


Advertisement  02:16

Good, Sean, how are you? 


Sean McMahon  02:19

Great, great. Before we get into the conversation, we're going to do a deep dive today on on the transmission in the US and the grid, why don’t you tell our listeners a little bit about your background and your kind of the grid guru, if you don't mind me calling you that.


Rob Gramlich  02:29

I've been doing it for long enough I should be by now it's been like 30 years since college, when I was looking at environmental issues with the power system, and it was acid rain back then. But then it became climate and the grid became was a key part of it. So I went to work for eight years, worked for the chairman for a while and worked for the wind Association for 12 years. And five years ago about I started grid strategies. And I've been focusing on grid policy economics, we have some engineering capability at the firm here. And we do a lot of work with a couple of groups, including Americans for clean energy grid and the watt coalition, which is about advanced transmission technology.


Sean McMahon  03:12

Well, it sounds like you're well versed, like I said a few decades doing this. So you know you're talking about. So let's get right into it. What are the biggest issues facing the US grid right now?


Rob Gramlich  03:22

Yeah, we really need to move power around geographically, that's a that's a big deal. Most people kind of get that we need to move it sort of over time too. And storage helps with that. But we also need to move it over space. And so we have a couple ways to do that. One is delivery. Moreover, existing wires, we can talk about how the some technologies that do that. But really, we have limited capacity, and we have to expand the capacity of the grid. And there's no way to do that other than new transmission capacity could be over existing rights of way, either electricity line rights away, or rail highway, etc, and sometimes over private land. But that's kind of what we need to do for a couple of reasons that everybody cares about. everybody cares about resilience. And we've seen situations where, you know, severe weather takes out generation of all types for one, you know, threat or another and you can move power across from neighboring regions to cover the shortfall with transmission. And then completely separate. Most people care a lot about clean energy, either for climate reasons, or other reasons. And the way to operate a high renewable penetration grid is again, by moving the power from you know, where the wind is blowing to where it isn't, or where the solar you know, is in a time zone where it's shining and producing to where it's not or where it's sunny and to a place where it's cloudy, so you're not moving the power around geographically a lot with a high renewable energy grid.


Sean McMahon  04:48

Alright, so that's kind of where all this build out that we're hearing about, you know, a lot of listeners as podcasts are in the loop on renewables. And so we're building you know, solar farms, wind farms everywhere, but a lot of times those resources aren't where people Live, right? So So what's being done, either in state level, regional federal level to kind of move that transmission along?


Rob Gramlich  05:06

Yeah, that's right. And if you're on the wind, or solar, or storage, any development business, you know, what you see is you go to try to interconnect Two years later, they tell you actually, it's going to cost you 30 million bucks or 80 million bucks to put your project there. And, you know, you had no idea if it was gonna be 1 million or 100 million and get this kind of, you know, crapshoot response. And it could be really high. And at the time, you probably dropped out of the interconnection queue. So just about everybody I know in the renewable generation business is extremely frustrated right now with interconnection, and transmission. And of course, the real long term solution there is to alleviate the capacity constraints by building the whole system out to where we know the renewables are. So we can follow these renewable energy or Generation Zone approaches like they did in Texas or in miso in the Midwest, he kind of identify the resource areas so that the number one thing we need to do is proactively plan for the future resource mix. There's actually you know, a lot of information about what type of generation and where it's going to be that planners can incorporate the sad fact is, it's not happening right now, planners are not actually planning for that future resource mix. So that's something that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has identified as a problem in Congress, as identified in the administration, the Biden administration, there's a lot happening in Washington, on those fronts to try to plan for the future mix.


Sean McMahon  06:41

So what else can be done to you know, that inner connection for you mentioned anywhere from like, one to $100 million? It sounds like a surprise game that nobody really wants to play. So what can be done? You know, either at FERC, you mentioned you spent a chunk of your career working for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, what's FERC doing to try and maybe take some of the mystery out of that number, that dollar figure, or like you said, the biggest problem is just kind of building out more transmission lines. So what's being done the federal level at FERC, or, you know, regional players or state level?


Rob Gramlich  07:09

Yeah, there are regional planners around the country that to varying degrees are now proactively building out for the resource mix and taking that into account. California, their grid operator works with the state on what the resource, you know, policies are that whatever was decided in Sacramento, then they kind of put into the plan, and they they're working on that New York is doing the same in the Midwest misos, trying to do the same. So those regional planners are now I think, turning things around and doing more forward looking planning. But this is all under the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington. And I think as FERC looks across all 11 of these planning authorities around the country, what they see is, even though some people are starting some good work, it's really not been happening, like the most recently approved plans, in almost all cases have none of this forward looking planning Incorporated.


Sean McMahon  08:08

So you're telling me they're doing all this planning without any forward looking aspect to it. Doesn't really sound like planning to me.


Rob Gramlich  08:13

Exactly. Well, that's exactly what we're saying is it's hard to even call it planning. all they're doing is, you know, complying with, you know, this year or next year's reliability rules. And, you know, interconnecting the next generation that's in that interconnection queue, it's it's really more the exception than the rule to actually forward you know, do a forward looking 1020 year actual plan where they take the future MCs into account. I think most people assume that that's what transmission planners do, but in fact, it's not happening.


Sean McMahon  08:47

Well, the simple question is, why not? Is it lobbying is it policies are strong enough or all of the above or what


Rob Gramlich  08:52

You know, this is an interesting industry with interesting incentives, very unusual incentives, because it's, you know, they came out of natural monopoly utility, you know, kind of a legacy of that, that history with some state regulations and federal regulation. So the incentives are pretty messed up. And they generally don't align with sort of what's in the whole regional interest. Plus, you know, I think there's a natural it's almost human nature for companies not to give up control to regional authorities, if they can do their own system. They're much more comfortable with that. But of course, that leaves all the, you know, beneficial, reliable and efficient opportunities on the table. So there's a variety of issues going on there. FERC has been trying, literally for my entire career. I was looking back at there's a 1993 Regional transmission Group Policy Statement, where they've been pushing in this direction, but some of the things have worked a little most of them haven't worked and FERC I think really now has the opportunity after some court decisions over the last five to 10 years that have, if anything clarified and strengthened the agency's authority to really try to finally make planning work. So I think they can kind of take that strong authority, you know, take the evidence of what's happening and say, Alright, this, this isn't happening, here's what needs to happen. And they can put out a nationwide rule. And it looks to me like this is chairman Richard glicks. top priority. And they put out this extensive sort of inquiry asking the industry a bunch of questions a couple months ago, and all the comments are back in 10s of 1000s of pages. It looks like some poor soul on FERC’s staff has to do what I used to do. Early in my career, I read all this stuff. But yeah, so now they can kind of put together I think, a proposed rulemaking and then a rulemaking and fix a lot of it. 


Sean McMahon  10:48

Yeah. I talked to Chairman Glick about some of this on a previous episode, he definitely sounds like it's one of his priorities. So let's talk about the carrot and the stick then, right. So we've had some crises that have happened, you know, Texas, seems like every other hurricane that comes through the Gulf, just kind of dismantles all the power law in the region. A lot of folks are wondering why that keeps happening. And in Texas, I think I truly think a lot of Americans had no idea that Texas was its own grid - ERCOT. And suddenly now they're finding that, you know, they found that out the hard way. So in the aftermath of that, we read about how after the last kind of power crisis in Texas, there was all these kind of suggested fixes, you know, winterization, and things like that, but it just didn't happen. So is for good a position now where they're going to be able to, you know, mandate that and, you know, with a proverbial stick on the back end,if companies don't? 


Rob Gramlich  11:34

Yes, I think they have to, and I think NERC reliability authority has to act. I mean, if many of the recommendations or previously stated 10 years prior and they didn't get implemented, then, you know, nobody, nobody can just sit there and casually recommend things. I think they have to act. So winterization, it seems to be pretty widely recognized. You mentioned the ercot, separate grid, the Texas grid being separate, I think that's definitely going to be reviewed, you know, probably Texans need to need to lead that. But you know, if they don't act, I wonder whether some of these standards that exist in Europe where there's a minimum amount of interconnection capacity between regions, you know, might be brought over here, that certainly increased would increase reliability. So that's another opportunity. But of course, the whole Texas question, I don't want to say that you know, transmissions, the only issue it certainly could help a lot for future instances. But there was a lot of other things going on there. And I had no idea personally just held vulnerable, the whole gas system was all the way upstream in Texas, and how much of that is unique to Texas versus an issue elsewhere is not totally clear, yet.


Sean McMahon  12:53

You touched on kind of, if Texas were able to pull power from other regions in a crisis, like that'd be alright, so looking outside of Texas, are there other regions that are kind of have that vulnerability where they have no connection? But maybe perhaps not enough? Or, you know, how does that shape up across the rest of the country?


Rob Gramlich  13:08

Yeah, I think a lot of regions have have some, but not enough. And I think they wouldn't they need to do is, is measure it, and model these scenarios, these sort of reasonably possible but extreme weather situations, you know, California, even a state you know, California is not a state of climate deniers, right? Especially in their government. But on the other hand, they weren't really modeling a whole West wide heat wave when they are doing their transmission planning and analysis. And so obviously, they should and I'm sure in the future, they will but other regions need to do the same thing and take these situations into account, we get polar vortex incidents in the central region and the East, especially the northeast and Mid Atlantic where I live and you know, every time that happens, we end up delivering, you know, 10 gigawatts. So a whole lot of power from the neighboring region you know, and as much basically as capacity as there is, but you know, it'd be nice to have some more so that's the type of planning they need to do.


Sean McMahon  14:11

Getting back to your comments about how we kind of just need to build out more transmission lines, no real way around it if we're gonna have all these you know, either renewable other sources it's got to be there so but what about you know, there's a lot of talk about kind of rooftop solar or distributed energy resources, you know, obviously that's kind of more of for the most part, you know, generating the power right where it's needed, or at least close by, what kind of percentage of the pie Do you think that could alleviate in terms of the the need for transmission, you know, not even needing to big lines going miles and miles, just having it right there on your roof?


Rob Gramlich  14:41

Well, there's a lot of advantages, as you say, having it local and having it on on site. Now, very little of the on site, generation of renewable energy is capable of islanding from the grid, like it's all built to basically be part of the grid. So if the grid goes down, it goes down. The case with my, you know, rooftop solar right now it doesn't help me in a power outage. But there are more and more opportunities for that going forward. You know, it's, it's expensive. So I think, you know, some customers will be able to do it and not not all, but you know, I'd love to see love to have one of those Ford F 150, lightnings, you know, electric car with a huge battery sitting in my driveway that could, you know, last at least a couple days, that's an opportunity, we all need to have energy efficient homes, or at least some minimum level of energy efficiency so that you know, whatever heat or cold air you have in your house, you can keep for more than a couple hours. And hopefully last year, day or two, that's, that's important for sort of human health and safety. businesses like hospitals and police stations, etc, tend to have their backup generation sort of all already worked out. But that's, that's certainly gonna be something you need to plan for, if you have a, you know, need for high reliability. Because any number of things can affect a grid power. But you know, at the end of the day, I think what serves most people for reliability on an affordable basis is being part of the interconnected network. And if you build a network, right, then the nice thing about networks is if one piece of the network goes down, you don't bring the whole thing down, you have a network and power can flow across other paths. So we build up a strong network with power flowing across various directions. And, you know, that keeps us all stronger, that I think serves the most people for the least money in the future. So don't view it as distributed versus utility scale renewable, I think they'll both be a big part of the mix.


Sean McMahon  16:41

Is there any kind of percentage wise, you think would, you know, 10 years from now 15 years from now, what percentage is is distributed kind of accounting for? We talked in single digits, you know, 20%? Where are we at?


Rob Gramlich  16:52

You know, is there's a trade off? I mean, you know, community solar, I think is gonna keep going, where there's, you get a little bit of the efficiencies of scale, there's a lot of economies of scale, both in the generation and the transmission, right. So I mean, the costs of putting up panels on individual roof tops is, is very high. Moreover, I mean, you just look at the total capacity of, you know, most cities or towns, you know, the number of rooftops that face the right direction, at the right angle, don't anywhere near cover the the load of those areas. So, you know, again, I think what opportunities exist will be exploited and pursued. But it's, you know, that alone isn't going to cover it.


Sean McMahon  17:37

Alright. Now, let's shift our focus to offshore. Right, the Biden ministration has a lot of big, big plans for offshore wind. Are there any connection issues you see for that? You know, when it comes to shore, either in the northeast, or I guess, Mid Atlantic? Or perhaps long term? Maybe California?


Rob Gramlich  17:50

Yes, absolutely. So two separate related issues. One is the limited interconnection points on on land, that there just aren't that many places, you can have the transmission line from offshore land. And so what that means is you better use those interconnection points very efficiently. So if you know the community is going to tolerate one, you know, line on the shore to some substation, let's build it that at the right scale, so you maximize the delivery capacity with that build at once. That's one the other issue well, they, I guess, sort of three issues. The other is the The second one is a land based grid, call it the dry grid. If you look at the Northeast, for example, there's not very strong transmission capacity right along the coast, like you got to go pretty far in New Jersey to actually get to the main grid. So you got somehow build up the main grid and get access to the main grid from the shore. And then the third is the actual offshore network, all the wet grid. And it's just like, transmission issues always are there, there are major economies of scale. If you build it bigger for multiple users, you end up you know, saving a lot of money in the long run. So we got to figure out a way to do that and not do this just kind of development project by development project. But is it more of an integrated grid so this calls for states working together the regional transmission planners working together, the developers working together and I think the Biden administration which is very interested in transmission, very interested in deploying clean energy, I think there's a big role for them to to help lead in the northeast and then, you know, in California, California is can probably figure out how to make it work for themselves, but they they definitely have all the same issues wet and dry grid issues, too, to work on. They've got a good offshore resource and up in the Pacific Northwest, they've got some offshore wind opportunity. So yes, there's gonna be a lot of offshore wind and transmission work to do.


Sean McMahon  19:47

What about down on the Gulf? I know the administration just yesterday I think it was released kind of plans for I think it's seven projects off the coast and various locations of the US and the Gulf was one of them. So what does that transmission look like coming in


Rob Gramlich  20:00

I'm hearing about that more, that's a little bit more of a newer entry into the into the space. I don't know exactly what grid they're connecting into. But there could be opportunities there to kind of connect some grids and provide some more resilience, you know, maybe between the region and might be one more way you could connect the Texas grid with the SE grid, for example. Yeah, I don't know what those projects are planning to do about their their transmission.


Sean McMahon  20:28

Yeah, I just I have have concerns about hurricanes. But Mid Atlantic and I guess in the Gulf, and what that what that means for all those wind resources out there when a big category five comes rolling in. But people smarter than me are trying to solve for that. 

We're gonna take a quick, 30-second break. But when we come back, Rob will delve into the huge infrastructure proposals that are being discussed on Capitol Hill


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Sean McMahon  21:39

And now back to my conversation with Rob Gramlich from grid strategies. So your career, you mentioned, you spent years and years, somewhere in some way, shape and form touching the policy aspects here in the United States. So I'd like to pivot right now to what's going on on Capitol Hill with the infrastructure bill that's been proposed. Walk our listeners through it. I think few people know that the text of that bill and what's you know, on the table better than you do? So what's in the current infrastructure bill right now?


Rob Gramlich  22:04

Yeah, there are some important provisions for for the grid in in both of those bills. And remember, there's the bipartisan Senate Bill, and then there's the bill back better bill in the House, which is expected to pass on a partisan basis through the reconciliation process. Some people call it the reconciliation bill. The thing about reconciliation processes, you can put any number of dollars taxes or spending into that, but you can't really change policies. So the bipartisan Senate Bill is the place where policies can be changed. So there's some provisions related to transmission siting and permitting and the policy bill and the Senate Bill. And there's a new provision that I like call the anchor tenant transmission bill where the government can take capacity reservations on transmission lines and partner with developers of transmission, which could be helpful because at least this Department of Energy Under Secretary Granholm seems interested in deploying transmission and helping on that there's some there's a little bit loan money in that bill. And then there's more dollars again, in the in the reconciliation bill, and there's loan money, there's grant money, there's $8 billion for loans and grants for regionally significant transmission, then there's also a tax credit, and everybody in the renewable energy business is aware of how well tax credits work, they have been very effective over the years. I mean, people kind of love them and hate them. But they they do deploy a lot of energy. And they could similarly deploy storage and transmission. So there's new tax credits in there, in addition to wind and solar credits, that would deploy regionally significant transmission. I think that would help a lot. We did a report about 22 projects ready to go around the country. These are big kind of long transmission projects, sometimes crossing multiple states, and they provide a lot of value. But a lot of that value is sort of public value and not private value. It's kind of transmissions of public goods, as we say. So that's the argument we've made in Congress is that look, these are really more like interstate highways, and the transmission owners around the country don't have a way to recover these costs. So some federal help to support these interstate highway type lines that are, you know, in the national interest for resilience reasons and climate reasons. would sure help a lot. And so it's in there right now, as we as we sit here in mid October, you know, fingers crossed, it stays in, things look good. Right now, it's just that the overall agreement isn't there yet, right on whether to pass these bills or what size they should be. Yeah, and


Sean McMahon  24:38

I guess things are changing pretty quickly on Capitol Hill. So we should let our listeners know that we're recording this on Thursday, October 14. So if everything changes tomorrow, then, you know, we couldn't see that far to the future. What do you see is some of the things in the bills that are there must haves, right that really need to happen because it seems like there's a lot of talk about cutting this or reducing that in terms of programs are there three, maybe four Things that you just feel got to be there.


Rob Gramlich  25:02

Well, as a grid geek, I focus on the transmission tax credit and the loans and grants for transmission. From a clean energy standpoint, I think people are very interested in the tax credits that that have not only a longer term than we're used to in the past, but direct pay options. So you don't have to use tax equity that's getting in the tax wonk world. But that's an important detail on that one. And then there's a lot of obviously a lot of public discussion and debate about the Clean Energy Performance program, which is the attempt to try to take a clean energy standard and make it a dollars and cents type of provision to fit in the reconciliation process. You know, we don't know the answer of whether the parliamentarian is going to rule that fair game or not, this gets into senate procedure, but that could certainly send a strong signal. And there's various other clean energy policies in there outside of renewable energy and transmission items that I don't follow us closely. But I know the administration is trying to package all these up in a way that they can go to, you know, the UN Conference in Glasgow and say they've you know, us is back on track with policies, you know, to meet its objectives, you know, whether they get the bill done in time, there's a lot of skepticism and in Washington, but still, whenever it gets done, if it gets done, the United States will definitely have a stronger story to tell internationally to try to get better, stronger action from other countries.


Sean McMahon  26:37

All right, is there anything that's you know, we spent the last few minutes talking about everything that's in the bills, right? So is there anything that's not in those bills that you think should be or you wish there was?


Rob Gramlich  26:46

Well, I took it off economics to say we've got to be looking at carbon tax, I almost feel like to retain your your economics degree credential, you have to you have to start with we should have carbon pricing, and then and then it's okay to talk about the second or third best opportunities, but you know, it would just be so efficient, and avoid, you know, some of the problems as you get higher and higher clean energy penetration, you know, the, the warts and other policies become more noticeable. So I would certainly be among those who would love to see that. 


Sean McMahon  27:21

Alright, if you are a gambling man, and maybe you are, I don't know, what do you bet that the bills in some shape or form actually get passed, or you think we're kind of the Biden administration, standing with empty handed going to Glasgow?


Rob Gramlich  27:31

Well, I wish I was more optimistic about getting it done in the month of October before Glasgow. But I've been around Washington long enough to know that a lot of legislation gets passed right around Christmas, in terms of like, drop dead dates, there aren't many that are more drop dead, then, you know, all the members who celebrate Christmas trying to get home on that day, so you know, that's, that's definitely like a marker. And I think there's, I'm optimistic that something will pass and that something will pass by the end of the year, I'd put that around 80%. 


Sean McMahon  28:11

Alrighty, and now pulling back from the legislation and just kind of looking at the overall market. I like to ask guests, if they have any bold predictions about, you know, whatever expertise they have. So what are your bold predictions, perhaps about how the how the grid looks, and I will call it things take time to build? So call it 1015 years?


Rob Gramlich  28:27

Yeah, I think we'll have a nationally connected transmission system with much more very long distance lines, probably high voltage DC lines connecting the three grids of the country and stronger inter regional capacity than we do today. You know, maybe the inter regional capacity doubles roughly from what it is today, it's hard to measure that exactly. But, you know, conceptually, doubling that in a regional capacity from where we have today, I think we need it, I think I just see trends of everybody coming on board and utilities and others in the business, saying, Wait a minute, if we're going to do this, we really need to strengthen that in a regional capacity. So I'm hopeful people keep coming around. And we'll put policies in place and just voluntary agreements in place in each region to get that done.


Sean McMahon  29:25

I want to step back for a second because we spent this first you know, half hour or so talking about some pretty intricate policy things and stuff that folks who are outside the energy sector might not really know or how it works and all that stuff. So how do you explain to folks now you go to a dinner party or something like that and you're sitting across from some people who just are totally new to this whole conversation? What are some of the things that either questions they ask you because they know your background or things that you try to share with folks just to kind of you know, give them the the grid or transmission 101 course if you will, over some appetizers and entrees 


Rob Gramlich  29:56

Yeah, They usually don't want to ask me because they know maybe they asked me at the end of the party like, Alright, let's say let Rob talk and then we can head out of here,


Sean McMahon  30:11

Rob's are closer,


Rob Gramlich  30:12

is that what it is? No, like I, you know, I try to just make it real for people like, you know, it's kind of some of these ideas like, you know, the wind is always blowing somewhere, you know, that's sort of a reality. Like, you know, if you go 400 miles away from a typical wind farm, the wind is either you know, blowing or not blowing, it's basically not correlated with the first one. And so you end up moving the power around and we've had successes, we've done a transmission build out in the past, like take the upper Midwest, we delivered a lot of wind out of the upper Midwest into Chicago and points east. You know, some of those lines are over highways. If you drive along from Madison to lacrosse, Wisconsin, it's along the highway. So you know, previously disturbed land, Brownfield you could say, and the thing about transmission is, you know, it's bi directional. And it gives you all these options for reliability and for clean energy. So those same lines that were delivered to deliver wind to Chicago and points East where the lines are kept the lights on in the upper Midwest during winter storm, Yury power is flowing the other direction. So we need you know, if we expand the capacity, we'll keep the lights on and we'll get clean energy integrated, and we need to do it and a lot of it can be done. Without new rights away in corridors, some will require that but there are a lot of ways to do this that, you know, meet with social social objectives and keeps rates low. The bigger that you build transmission, the lower per delivered megawatt it is, so you do it at the right scale, and ratepayers are better off. So there's a lot of wins and wins. You know, here, if we kind of worked together on these plans, the challenges there's so many stakeholders, with so many interests across so many geographies, that it's hard to put it all together, but shows like yours, Sean, get everybody rowing in the same direction. And hopefully we can do that. 


Sean McMahon  32:07

Well, I appreciate that as we're trying to do is kind of bring everybody into the conversation. Back in the conversation, I'm going to flip that dinner party question on its head and say you're at the same table and everyone around you is the smartest, you know, half dozen or eight or so folks that you know who live and breathe this stuff. What is that conversation? Like? What are y'all talking about? In perhaps off the record, you know, your hopes and dreams? Like what? What are the smartest people that know a lot about this stuff talking about?


Rob Gramlich  32:31

They're probably talking about technologies and business models on technologies. There's some intriguing new technologies, you know, high voltage DC technology with what they call voltage source converters provide a lot of reliability benefit, you know, you can black start, which means restart a grid from from nothing. With some of these facilities, you can, you know, you have reactive power and these ancillary services, you have all these, basically reliability services that come out of these new technologies that is really useful. Some of these technologies like has certain high voltage DC lines can be built underground, they might be talking about superconductors, which cool the line and allow more delivery, they might be talking about advanced conductors that are stronger, so they can withstand storms better, and they can deliver more over existing corridors, or grid enhancing technologies, which are these technologies that deliver more over the existing system. So there's a lot of that going on, that everybody's trying to keep up with, because it's happening so fast. And it's a lot of these things are being deployed like gangbusters in other countries, and we need to figure out better ways to deploy them here. So that's one is technology. Another one is business model. This one honestly is just a really hard one, because there's a lot of utilities that want to build this transmission. But there's also a lot of third party developers, we call them merchant developers who want a more competitive approach and have a shot at it. And it's, it's tough because you know, the utilities kind of have the rights away, and they have the local relationships, and they can get a lot of stuff done. And our regulatory structure actually works pretty well to, you know, for them to go ahead and build infrastructure. But you know, how do you say no to the competitive developers, when they're willing to put their independent private capital at risk for it, so that's just something that's not been settled, really in the US transmission system and I would love for it to just be settled so we know how to go ahead and get it done.


Sean McMahon  34:31

Okay, and you mentioned burying the lines in terms of you know, transmission lines. How realistic is that for existing lines? I mean, I'm a native California and I know a lot of fires down there sparked by power lines and things like that, and people talk about burying the lines. It just seems like a pretty let's just call it expensive endeavor. Is that real? Is that a pipe dream?


Rob Gramlich  34:51

Yeah, it's limited. It's real, but limited. high voltage DC is more underground. Double, if I can Making a word like that, then AC lines, just because of the sort of the physics of how it's cooled and all that. So, you know, I don't know if it's, you know, 1.5x more costly for HVDC. But you know, something like that, whereas AC, it's like 10x 10 times more costly to underground. And so it's just hard to see a lot of widespread undergrounding. pg&e I don't know if you're in Northern California, but you know, they put out an estimate of $40 billion to underground, their system. And I don't know if that's accurate or not, but obviously, that sticker shock for everybody, well, wait a minute, that's, that's just seems way beyond what's realistic. So there's certainly a lot of other things that can be done. I mean, just keeping up with a maintenance obviously, is what every utility needs to be doing. They shouldn't have old rusty wire sparking wildfires. So that's certainly the lowest hanging fruit, and selective undergrounding in certain areas probably will be used, but it again, it is a big price delta. So it's hard to see artists, the widespread undergrounding of AC lines.


Sean McMahon  36:08

Gotcha. Is there anything else? topics out there kind of free conversation here two things you think listeners should know about? Like I said, either people who work in the industry sector and know this well, or people who don't? What message would you share


Rob Gramlich  36:20

with those folks? I would encourage people to get into it. You know, there is a lot happening, there's going to be a tremendous amount of work. It's policy work, it's legal work, it's engineering work, it's economic analysis, its communications work. So any and all of these capabilities that normally you know, apply in business and policy or are going to be needed. All you need to do is overcome your fear of transmission like I did, I still feel like I, I don't really know how transmission works. You can get a lot done, just getting involved. That's one the other thing is to emphasize you asked about Congress and policy, I really think this is the biggest year ever for transmission policy. And this moment may not come back again for at least for the foreseeable future. So I really hope they get these bills done personally, and they could be quite significant if they do pass.


Sean McMahon  37:14

Okay, Rob, I really appreciate your time. I learned a lot, and I think our listeners did too. So thank you very much.


Rob Gramlich  37:19

Great, john, great to be with you.


Sean McMahon  37:22

And now it’s time for the PodBrief segment of today’s show. Many of the headlines in the lead-up to COP26 in Glasgow inevitably focus on big players like the US, UK, EU and China, but it’s important to keep your eye on what is going on in countries outside the G20. With that in mind, I want to point you to a couple news items that are worth a read -- I am providing links to both these stories in today’s show notes.

First up … over at the Conversation, Benjamin Attia and Morgan Bazilian from the Payne Institute wrote a piece about why banning financing for fossil fuel projects in Africa should not, I repeat, should not be a priority at COP26. They make a compelling case based on many factors, including the fact that overall greenhouse gas emissions from all of Africa pail in comparison to big emitters like the US and China. Renewables already account for more than 50% of power generation in places like Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda, so maybe policymakers gathered in Glasgow should focus more on reining in the big emitters and less on limiting the ways Africa chooses to develop its energy infrastructure.  

Speaking of African countries that are making great progress in the build out of renewables, President Hage Geingob of Namibia recently penned an op-ed for the World Economic Forum that outlines the ways his country plans to make renewable energy a key component of its economy. Now, I was lucky enough to spend some time in Namibia back in 2018 and I got an up-close look at the infrastructure in places like the port city of Walvis Bay. It is impressive … and with Namibia’s abundant solar resources, it’s pretty easy to see why the country is well-positioned to become a major player in the global green hydrogen market. 

Well… that’s our show for today. Once again, I’d like to thank the exclusive sponsor of this episode: Emerson. 

If you like this podcast, please share it with your friends and colleagues. And be sure to follow us on Apple, Google, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also follow us on Twitter for our handle is @RenewablesPod. And if you'd like a daily dose of renewable news delivered to your inbox, head to and sign up for the Renewable Energy SmartBrief. The Renewable Energy SmartPod is a production of SmartBrief - A Future company

What are the biggest challenges the US grid is facing?
Interconnection queues and costs are a problem
When planning doesn't look toward the future
FERC is trying to fix planning processes
Curbing repeated power crises
Are other regions as vulnerable as Texas?
The role of distributed energy resources
Offshore wind - Getting all the power to the grid
The current infrastructure proposals on Capitol Hill
What are the 'must-haves' in the legislation?
Carbon tax is a missing piece
Will the bills get passed? And if so, when?
Bold predictions about the future of the grid
A dinner party with grid newbies
A dinner party with grid gurus
How realistic is it to bury transmission lines?
PodBrief: COP26 and Africa's energy future
PodBrief: Namibia charts a bold course for renewables