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U.S. Department of Energy implements transmission, solar and storage projects

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has submitted a proposal that, if approved, would help expedite some transmission, solar and storage projects on federal lands. The proposed changes, which would affect DOE's compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), would add a "categorical exclusion" for certain energy storage systems and revise the "categorical exclusion" for transmission line upgrades and reconstruction and solar photovoltaic systems. These exclusions will eliminate the need for project-specific exclusions. These exclusions would eliminate the requirement for project-specific environmental assessments or environmental impact statements.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is requesting a single categorical exclusion for energy storage systems, limited to electrochemical batteries and flywheel energy storage systems. The DOE stated that not enough information has been obtained for this current energy storage system to conclude that compressed air energy storage, thermal energy storage (e.g., molten salt storage), or other technologies do not generally have significant environmental impacts. Under the proposed rule, the construction, operation, upgrading, or decommissioning of electrochemical battery or flywheel energy storage systems in previously disturbed or developed areas would also be subject to review.

In 2011, the DOE proposed revising three relevant categorical exclusions for energy storage: energy storage (e.g., flywheels and batteries, generally less than 10 megawatts (MW)), and load shaping projects (e.g., installation and use of flywheels and battery arrays). Currently, the DOE is proposing to exclude the 10 MW limit from the new categorical exclusion because the amount of electricity is not a criterion for its potential environmental impact. In addition, DOE is proposing to remove the absolute exclusion of "no more than 20 miles in length" when upgrading or reconstructing an existing transmission line, and at the same time removing the mileage limitation, adding relocation options within existing rights-of-way or in previously disturbed and developed areas, and adding new conditions.

DOE also proposes to clarify the options for relocating transmission lines within the absolute exclusion. Currently, "minor relocation of small portions of circuits" is approved for inclusion in the exclusion, but DOE proposes to delete "small portions" and further provide, under the proposed revisions, that small portions of circuits may be relocated "within existing rights-of-way or within previously disturbed or developed areas". or applied within previously disturbed or developed lands."

Currently, the categorical exclusion for solar photovoltaic (PV) systems primarily covers the installation, modification, operation, and removal of solar PV systems on buildings or other facilities. DOE is proposing to change the term "removal" to "decommissioning" of solar PV systems in the provision and to eliminate the area limitation for the proposed project. Based on DOE's prior experience, area limits do not accurately reflect potential environmental impacts.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently released a draft roadmap to address the challenges of interconnecting the transmission grid. It serves as a practical guide for implementing near- and long-term solutions to enable clean energy interconnections and clean up the construction of existing solar, wind, and battery projects. The U.S. Department of Energy has stated that the U.S. needs to dramatically expand its use of solar and wind resources in order to meet the Biden Administration's goal of decarbonizing the power sector by 2035. However, incentives continue to roll out, which is driving up demand for renewable energy while also making the wait for clean energy projects seeking to connect to the grid even longer.

New clean energy projects are subject to a complex approval process before coming online. The large number of interconnected projects has led to uncertainty, delays, and inequities that have arisen, as well as increased costs for developers, consumers, utilities, and their regulators. Earlier this year, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a final ruling aimed at streamlining generator interconnections and easing congested queues across the United States. The final ruling requires all utilities to adopt revised generator interconnection procedures and protocols to ensure that interconnection customers are able to reliably, efficiently, transparently and timely interconnect to the electric transmission system.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will require the adoption of a "first ready, first served" cluster study process, in which an electric provider conducts a large interconnection study of a large number of proposed generating facilities, rather than studies of individual generating facilities. To ensure that ready projects move through the queue in a timely manner, interconnection customers will be subject to specific requirements, including bonding and site control conditions, in order to enter and remain in the interconnection queue.

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