The U.S.’s Great Plains and desert Southwest have sweeping winds, abundant sunshine, and, crucially, not many people. Low population means lots of unoccupied land and very few buildings to block the breeze or throw shade, making them ideal for the production of renewable energy.

This presents a problem: because there are so few people nearby to consume the power generated by remote wind and solar facilities, energy has to travel a long way to reach customers, and the U.S. doesn’t have enough transmission lines to handle it all.

Now, as the U.S. federal government again contemplates whether and how much to invest in its moribund energy infrastructure as part of its plans to stimulate the coronavirus-battered economy, renewable advocates from inside and outside the industry alike are attempting to push power lines to the top of the priority list.

Transmission projects take years to develop and site, and routinely hit federal, regional, state, or local bureaucratic bottlenecks. Lining up permits, rights-of-way, and regulatory approvals is painstaking. Different states or grids have different rules, adding to the complexity. Without power lines, though, renewable projects are nonstarters. More than 230 gigawatts of wind projects were seeking transmission interconnections at the end of 2018, according to the U.S. Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy. If that backlog persists, “the vast majority of these will not be built,” says Michael Goggin, vice president at power-sector consulting firm Grid Strategies LLC.

“Even if you have eminent domain, it can take twice as long as you thought,” says Ed Krapels, chairman of Anbaric Development Partners, which has projects that would support clean power produced onshore and offshore.

Few homeowners, of course, are eager to see power lines run through their backyard, while states don’t always see direct benefits to allowing the lines to pass through.

“There’s a lot of opposition to transmission even though everyone agrees that it's needed,” says Chris Moscardelli, a New York-based managing director at Societe Generale SA.

Michael Skelly founded Clean Line Energy Partners LLC in the late aughts to develop new multi-state transmission projects. While he was under no illusion the task would be easy—“We knew that developing inter-regional transmission lines was a long, difficult process,” he says—there seemed to be things going for transmission development. Gas prices were relatively high, renewables were getting cheaper, and a green-friendly administration was entering the White House.

Then gas prices dropped, turning some seeming tailwinds into headwinds. Battles with states proved laborious. Clean Line sold off projects and is now effectively shutdown.

“We got to the point where our investors had been in for a long time, and there were other developers that were interested,” Skelly says.

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