In theory, the Department of Energy could play a bigger role in streamlining that process. Under laws previously passed by Congress, for instance, the federal government has the authority to designate transmission corridors as in the national interest and even override state regulators in certain cases if the permitting process has stalled.
A recent report from Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy looked at how the Energy Department and other regulators might use some of these tools to help expand the nation’s grid. The lead author, Avi Zevin, was recently hired by the Department of Energy as deputy general counsel for energy policy.
But there are dangers, too: If the federal government moves too aggressively, it could face blowback from states, lawmakers in Congress or the courts. For the most part, previous administrations have been wary of acting here.
“Yes, the authority is there, but it can be tricky,” said Alexandra Klass, a transmission expert at the University of Minnesota Law School. “You don’t want to make people too upset, or Congress could easily take that authority away.”
Lobby Congress for New Laws
Ultimately, experts said, a far-reaching transformation of the nation’s energy system is likely to require new laws from Congress. While the Department of Energy can help develop new clean energy technologies, companies may have little incentive to use them unless governments adopt new policies requiring lower emissions.
The Energy Department also has a relatively limited budget. Currently, the agency spends about $8 billion per year on energy. During the campaign, Mr. Biden pledged to invest $40 billion per year in clean energy innovation over the next decade, in pursuit of goals such as developing energy storage that’s one-tenth the cost of today’s batteries or slashing emissions from heavy industry.
Any large increase in funding would require approval from Congress, either as part of a post-coronavirus stimulus bill or through regular spending bills. That means persuading sometimes skeptical lawmakers that the government can play an effective role in advancing new technologies.