Creating a National HVDC Transmission Network


The Biden Administration has committed the United States to a 50–52% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 and to net-zero emissions by 2050. To achieve these goals, the U.S. must rapidly increase renewable-energy production while simultaneously building the transmission capacity needed to carry power generated from new renewable sources. Such an investment requires transforming the American electricity grid at a never-before-seen speed and scale; for example, a recent study estimates that a 60% increase in transmission capacity will be required. One way to achieve this ambitious transmission target is to create a national High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) transmission network overlaid atop the existing alternating current (AC) grid. In addition to advancing America’s climate goals, such an effort would spur economic development in rural areas, improve the grid’s energy efficiency, and bolster grid stability and security. This memo proposes several policy options to incentivize private-sector efforts to construct a national HVDC transmission network while avoiding environmental and eminent-domain concerns that have doomed previous HVDC projects. Options range from modest and easily implemented rule changes by federal agencies to more ambitious Congressional actions.

Challenge and Opportunity

The current American electricity grid resembles the American highway system before the Eisenhower interstate system. Just as paved one or two-lane roads extended to nearly every community by the early 1950s, very few areas are unelectrified today. However, the AC power lines that crisscross the nation today are tangled, congested, and ill-suited to quickly move large amounts of renewable power from energy-producing regions with low demand (such as the Midwest and Southwest) directly to large population centers where demand is highest. Since HVDC transmission lines lose less power than AC lines at distances over 300 miles, HVDC technology is the best candidate to connect the renewable generation required to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 with power consumers.

There is a dearth of HVDC lines in the United States today, and the few that do exist are scattered across the country and were not designed to facilitate renewable development. In other words, the U.S. is a long way away from the integrated nationwide HVDC network needed to achieve net-zero emissions. Recent attempts by the private sector to begin building long-distance HVDC transmission lines between renewable producing regions and consumers — such as Clean Line Energy’s proposal for an aboveground line that would have linked much of the Great Plains to the Southeast — have been unsuccessful due to a host of challenges. These challenges included negotiating leases with thousands of landowners with understandable concerns about how the project could alter their properties, mounting an effective legal defense of the company’s use of Section 1222 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (which allows developers to assume the federal government’s power of eminent domain for large-scale transmission projects if leases cannot be agreed upon), negotiating with many local and state jurisdictions to secure project approval, and maintaining investor confidence throughout the complex and time-consuming permitting and leasing process. However, a new generation of private developers has proposed an innovative solution that bypasses these challenges: the construction of an underground nationwide HVDC network alongside existing rail corridors. Unlike aboveground transmission built through a mosaic of property owners’ holdings, this solution requires negotiation with only the seven major American rail companies, takes advantage of the proximity of these already-disturbed corridors to many areas with high renewable-energy potential (Figure 1), does not add visual pollution to the aboveground landscape, and would likely not require the use of Section 1222 to justify eminent domain. 

Figure 1: Areas with high potential for wind and solar generation in the Great Plains and Southwest overlap with existing rail routes. Clockwise from left to right, routes of all seven class 1 railways (Source: Federal Railway Administration), heat map of average annual wind speed 80 meters aboveground (an indicator of the potential for wind energy generation; Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)), heat map of global horizontal solar irradiance (an indicator of solar-energy potential; Source: NREL).

In addition to the political considerations discussed above, several recent advances in HVDC technology have driven costs low enough to make HVDC installation cost-competitive with installing high voltage alternating current (HVAC) lines (see FAQ for more details). As a result, incentivizing HVDC makes sense from perspectives beyond addressing climate change. The U.S. electric grid must be modernized to address pressing challenges beyond climate, such as the need for improved grid reliability and stability. Unlike AC transmission, HVDC transmission can maintain consistent power, voltage, and frequency, making it a promising way to support the large-scale incorporation of renewable sources into our nation’s energy mix while simultaneously bolstering grid stability and efficiency and spurring rural economic growth.

A nationwide HVDC network would also increase grid stability by connecting the four large interconnections that make up the shared American and Canadian power grid (Figure 2). Currently, the two largest of these interconnections — the Eastern and Western interconnections — manage 700 and 250 GW of electricity respectively. Yet, these interconnections are connected by transfer stations with a capacity of only about 1 GWA recent study led by NREL researcher Aaron Bloom modeled the economics of building a nationwide HVDC macrogrid that would tie the Eastern and Western interconnections together. The study concluded that such an investment would have a net benefit-to-cost ratio of 1.36 due to the possible ability for a nationwide HVDC grid to (i) shuttle renewable energy across the country as different power sources begin and end generation capabilities each day, and (ii) respond more nimbly to power outages in regions affected by natural disasters. 

Figure 2: The four interconnections comprising the American and Canadian electricity grid: the Western, Eastern, ERCOT (Texas), and Quebec interconnections. Colors within the Eastern interconnection represent the territories of non-profit entities established to promote and enhance grid reliability within the territories shown on the map. These grid-reliability non-profits should not be confused with independent system operators (ISOs). (Source: National Electricity Reliability Council (NERC)). 

Minneapolis-based Direct Connect, with financial backing from a mixture of American and international investors, has begun the permitting process for SOO Green, the first underground HVDC project co-located with rail lines. SOO Green will run from the Iowa countryside to the Chicago metropolitan area. Although this distance is geographically short, it is significant in terms of the connectivity it will provide. The line will link the Midwest (MISO) and PJM Independent System Operators (ISOs), two of the nine regional bodies that manage much of the United States’ grid. The combined territory of the MISO and PJM ISOs stretches from the wind-rich Great Plains to demand centers like Philadelphia, the New York suburbs, and Washington, D.C. Facilitating HVDC transmission in this territory will allow renewable power to be efficiently funneled from regions that produce lots of energy to regions that need it. 

By providing a market for wind power in the energy-consuming PJM territory, the SOO Green proposal has already begun to generate interest in expanded renewable development in the wind-rich MISO territory. Direct Connect estimates that the SOO Green HVDC link will spur $1.5 billion of new renewable-energy development, create $2.2 billion of economic output in Iowa and Illinois, and create thousands of construction, operation, and maintenance jobs. 

SOO Green’s construction specifications, operational plan, and anticipated profit margin are near-ideal for an underground rail co-located HVDC project. The planned route crosses only two states, relies on a low-use railway, lies atop an area with well-characterized geology, and connects the energy-producing Midwest with the energy-consuming Mid-Atlantic. But despite these favorable conditions, SOO Green’s attempts to gain approval have been handicapped by outdated utility regulations. Direct Connect’s efforts have shown that even proposals with optimal conditions confront difficult permitting pathways. As a result, scaling underground co-located HVDC rapidly enough to achieve the transmission required for net-zero emissions in 2050 requires federal action to make these types of lines a more attractive proposition. The policy options outlined below would encourage other privately backed HVDC projects with the potential to boost rural economies while advancing climate action. 

Plan of Action

The following policy recommendations would accelerate the development of a national HVDC network by stimulating privately backed construction of underground HVDC transmission lines located alongside existing rail corridors. Recommendations one and two are easily actionable rule changes that can be enacted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) under existing authority. Recommendation three proposes a more long-term collaborative effort by the Department of Energy (DOE) and FERC to accelerate nationwide HVDC transmission siting and permitting. Recommendation four is a more ambitious proposal requiring Congressional action. 

Recommendation 1. FERC should amend its rules governing how ISOs review new merchant transmission projects. 

New merchant transmission projects (transmission lines developed by private companies and not by rate-regulated utilities) and generation projects are often reviewed by ISOs as part of a single interconnection process. In SOO Green’s case, the PJM ISO is backlogged in its reviews due to the high volume of new renewable-generation project proposals. This creates a vicious cycle holding back the clean-energy sector: a delayed review of the transmission capabilities required by new renewable-generation projects ultimately chills the market for generation projects as well. FERC should therefore issue a rule that requires PJM and other ISOs to review new renewable generation and new transmission projects on separate tracks. 

Recommendation 2. FERC should exempt HVDC transmission projects from external-capacity rules developed for less controllable AC transmission projects. 

Under current rules set by the PJM ISO, energy generated outside of the PJM service area can participate in PJM’s energy marketplace only if grid operators can directly dispatch that energy. Due to the diffuse nature of renewable-energy generation, it is impossible for PJM operators to dispatch specific renewable-generation projects. In October 2021, SOO Green filed a complaint to FERC alleging that the PJM ISO’s external-capacity rules were designed to manage older, less diffuse generation resources — and that these rules need to be updated to allow the technological advantages of HVDC transmission (e.g., the capacity to schedule current flow at pre-agreed upon times and flows along HVDC transmission lines) to benefit PJM customers. FERC should exempt HVDC transmission projects from such rules as ISOs like PJM develop new external-capacity rules better suited to diffuse generation. 

Recommendation 3. FERC and DOE should adopt a collaborative strategy to identify mutually agreeable routes for new rail co-located HVDC transmission. 

Previous attempts by Congress to establish greater federal power over transmission siting and permitting have revolved around the DOE’s authority to designate some counties as National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors (NIETCs). NIETCs are regions that DOE identifies as being particularly prone to grid congestion or transmission-capacity constraints. The creation of NIETCs was authorized by the Federal Power Act (Sec. 216), which also grants FERC the authority to supersede states’ permitting and siting decisions if the rejected transmission project is in a NIETC and meets certain conditions (including benefits to consumers (even those in other states), enhancement of energy independence, or if the project is “consistent with the public interest”). This “backstop” authority was created by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and was recently reformed in 2021’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Although it is a laudable attempt to spur transmission investment, the revised authority in its current form is unlikely to lead to the sudden acceleration of transmission siting and permitting necessary to achieve the Biden Administration’s climate goals. This is because NIETC designation, as well as any FERC action under Section 216, (i) trigger the development of environmental impact statements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and (ii) would likely engender strong political opposition by states and landowners whose properties would be part of proposed routes but would not receive any benefits from transmission investments. 

Instead of relying solely on this top-down approach, DOE and FERC should adopt a collaborative strategy wherein they work with state governments, the Class 1 railways, utilities, and interested transmission developers to plan and permit future HVDC transmission, including rail co-located projects. This approach, in keeping with the spirit of the Building a Better Grid Initiative, would decrease the possibility of political opposition — especially if rail co-located HVDC is emphasized due to its relatively small number of stakeholders and focus on already disturbed corridors. In addition, if mutually agreed corridors can be negotiated, this collaborative approach would render the lengthy NEPA reviews required for NIETC designation and FERC precedence unnecessary (although NEPA reviews may still be required if federal agencies are involved in the agreed-upon projects in other ways. See FAQ for more information). 

Recommendation 4. Create federal tax credits to stimulate domestic manufacturing and construction of HVDC transmission, including HVDC lines along rail corridors. 

Congress should create two federal investment tax credits (ITCs) to stimulate a market for American HVDC lines. One tax credit should be directed to American manufacturers of cross-linked polyethylene (XLPE) which serves as the liner for HVDC cables. Such an incentive would help ensure a reliable, predictably priced domestic supply of this essential material. The second tax credit should be directed to HVDC line developers and should be modeled on an existing tax credit authorized by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (26 U.S.C. § 48) for renewable-generation projects. A tax credit for HVDC line developers was previously introduced by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) as part of 2019’s Electric Power Infrastructure Improvement Act. After stalling in the Senate Finance Committee, this bill was re-introduced in 2021 in both the House and Senate, then incorporated into President Biden’s Build Back Better Plan. The HVDC provisions of Build Back Better should be included in House and Senate Democrats’ attempts to revive the legislation during the summer of 2022. If negotiations are unsuccessful this summer, the HVDC provisions should be re-introduced via a stand-alone bill framed as a logical expansion of the renewable-generation tax credits enacted with broad bipartisan support in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. This strategy would separate HVDC tax credits from partisan feuding over Build Back Better and would draw greater attention to HVDC’s ability to simultaneously foster rural economic development and speed much-needed decarbonization efforts. 


A significant increase in transmission capacity is needed to meet the Biden Administration’s efforts to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Creating a nationwide HVDC transmission network would not only greatly aid the United States’ efforts to address climate change — it would also improve grid stability and provide sustained economic development in rural areas across the country. Minneapolis-based Direct Connect’s SOO Green project to construct HVDC transmission alongside existing rail corridors is an example of an innovative solution to legitimate stakeholder concerns over environmental impacts and the use of eminent domain —concerns that have plagued previous failed efforts to construct long-distance HVDC transmission. The federal government can stimulate private development of this publicly beneficial infrastructure via simple rule changes at FERC, embracing a collaborative strategy to site and permit new transmission infrastructure, and by passing new HVDC transmission-specific tax credits modeled after existing credits.

Frequently Asked Questions
Can you elaborate on the difference between DC and AC? Why did the grid develop as an AC grid?

Direct current (DC) runs continually in a single direction. DC became the standard current for American electricity early in the development of the U.S. grid, due largely to Thomas Edison’s endorsement. However, at that time DC could not be easily converted to different voltages, making it expensive and difficult to supply power to consumers since different end uses require different voltages. Alternating current (AC), or current that reverses direction at a set frequency, could be converted to different voltages and had its own prominent proponent in Nikola Tesla. Due to the lower costs associated with AC voltage conversion, AC became the technology of choice as city-wide and regional scale power plants and transmission developed in the early 20th century.

Can you elaborate on how to decide between HVDC and AC transmission? Under what circumstances should AC and HVDC be used?

In general, AC transmission is more cost-effective for lines that cover short distances, while HVDC transmission is ideal for longer projects. This is mainly due to the physical properties of DC, which reduce power loss when compared to AC transmission over long distances. As a result, DC transmission is ideal for moving renewable energy generated in rural areas to areas of high demand.

An additional factor is the need for HVDC lines to convert to AC at the beginning and end of the line. Due to the history discussed above, most generation and end-use applications respectively generate and require AC power. As a result, the use of HVDC transmission usually involves two converter stations located at either end of the line. The development of voltage source converter (VSC) technology has significantly shrunk the land footprint required for siting converter stations (to as little as ~1 acre) and reduced power loss associated with conversion. While VSC stations are expensive (costing $100 million or more), the expenses of VSC technology begin to be balanced by the savings in efficiency gained through HVDC transmission at distances above 300 miles.

Additional factors that lower the costs for underground rail co-located lines are (i) that America’s fracking boom has led to significant technological advances in horizontal drilling, and (ii) the wealth of engineering experience accumulated by co-locating much of America’s fiber-optic network alongside roads or railways.

Can you quantify the magnitude of the backlog within PJM’s approval process?

The current backlog is estimated to be 30 months or more, according to SOO Green’s first FERC complaint.

Does FERC have the authority to issue rule changes proposed in recommendations one and two of this memo?

Yes, FERC has the authority to issue these proposed rule changes under Section 206 of the Federal Power Act (FPA), which states:

“Whenever the Commission, after a hearing held upon its own motion or upon complaint, shall find that any rate, charges, or classification demanded, observed, charged, or collected by any public utility for any transmission or sale subject to the jurisdiction of the Commission, or that any rule, regulation, practice, or contract affecting such rate, charge, or classification is unjust, unreasonable, unduly discriminatory or preferential, the Commission shall determine the just and reasonable rate, charge, classification, rule, regulation, practice, or contract to be thereafter observed and in force, and shall fix the same by order.”

FERC has the authority under Section 206 of the FPA to issue the proposed rule changes because the classification of HVDC transmission as generation by ISOs (recommendation 1) and ISO rules governing external capacity (recommendation 2) are practices and rules that affect the rates charged by public utilities.

What is the permitting framework for large-scale HVDC transmission projects like SOO Green?

Large-scale HVDC transmission projects do not meet the categorical exclusion criteria under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) for transmission construction (<20 miles in length along previously disturbed rights of way; 10 C.F.R. 2021 Appendix B). As a result, environmental impact statements are required to be created by all relevant federal agencies (possibly including the Environmental Protection Agency as well as the Departments of Commerce, Energy, the Interior, Labor, and Transportation). All relevant state and local permitting requirements also apply.

Can you elaborate on the collaborative approach that this memo recommends that DOE and FERC adopt? Are there other agencies that should be involved?

To take advantage of the political momentum granted to the newly created DOE Undersecretary of Infrastructure and the relevant expertise within FERC, the new undersecretary, in partnership with FERC’s Office of Energy Policy and Innovation (OEPI), should together lead the collaborative effort by DOE and FERC to work with states, utilities, class 1 railways, and interested transmission developers. To expedite transmission development, efforts to bring representatives from these stakeholders to the table should begin as soon as possible. Once a quorum of interested parties has been established, the Infrastructure Undersecretary and FERC OEPI should facilitate the establishment of regular “transmission summits” to build consensus on possible transmission routes that meet the concerns of all parties.

When necessary, the Undersecretary of Infrastructure and OEPI should also include other relevant agencies and offices in these regularly scheduled planning summits. Possible DOE offices with valuable perspectives are the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations; the Office of Energy Efficiency, and Renewable Energy; and the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation (co-managed by the DOE and Department of Transportation (DOT)).  Possible additional FERC offices include the Office of Energy Market Regulation and the newly created Office of Public Participation. Other relevant agencies include the National Railway Administration within DOT, the Department of Labor, and the Department of the Interior (since lines built in the West are very likely to cross federal land).

Because HVDC transmission is a young industry, coordination among all these agencies and all relevant stakeholders for rail co-located HVDC transmission to proactively develop a clear regulatory framework would greatly aid the maturation of HVDC transmission in America.

Given that the 2019 Electric Power Infrastructure Improvement Act stalled in the Senate Finance Committee and that Build Back Better has not yet passed, what is the evidence that tax credits for HVDC transmission infrastructure in a stand-alone bill would have bipartisan support?

Tax credits for HVDC transmission projects and components are a logical extension of existing renewable energy tax credits designed to strengthen the positive economic effects of renewable energy growth in many rural American communities. The original renewable energy tax credits within the Energy Policy Acts of 1992 and 2005 were passed with large, bipartisan margins (93 – 3 and 85 – 12). A focused advocacy effort that unites all stakeholders who stand to benefit from these new proposed tax credits (including rural communities where new renewable generation will be spurred, railroad companies, HVDC developers and manufacturers, urban centers with high renewable demand) would generate the needed bipartisan support.

8. Have other countries built nationwide HVDC transmission networks?

China leads the world in installed point-to-point HVDC transmission. China also recently opened the world’s first HVDC grid. Behind China, the European Union has made extensive investments in deploying point-to-point HVDC lines and is planning to develop an integrated European grid by requiring EU members to meet a 15% interconnection target (meaning that each country must be able to send 15% of its electricity to neighbors) by 2030. India, Brazil, Australia, and Singapore have opened or are planning ambitious HVDC projects as well.

Accelerating Deployment of Innovations to Modernize the U.S. Electric Grid

Grid modernization should be a major part of a national infrastructure-investment initiative. Effectively and efficiently modernizing the U.S. electric grid requires rapid deployment of innovative grid technologies. The next administration should establish a Grid Resilience Innovation Demonstration (GRID) Network, run in partnership between the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Defense (DoD), to test and accelerate deployment of such technologies. The GRID Network would integrate and build on existing microgrids on federal installations and other relevant facilities, resulting in a group of geographically distributed test beds that can be managed and operated as a national user facility. The distributed nature of the network would allow test beds to ensure that solutions are compatible with a variety of grid technologies and operational structures and would also insulate the network from security threats, and other risks. Prioritizing establishment of the GRID Network early in the next administration will enable our nation to quickly realize the benefits of a modern electric grid, including enhanced resilience to natural disasters, entrepreneurship opportunities, and job growth. Failure to act will leave our national grid vulnerable to hostile actors, rob the country of needed shovel-ready construction projects and manufacturing jobs, and undermine U.S. leadership in electric sector innovation and the resulting impacts to our economy.

Challenge and Opportunity

The U.S. electric grid is a critical backbone of our nation’s economy, national security, health, and social interactions. Yet the current grid is ill-suited to modern demands. Our nation’s grid contains many critical components that were originally constructed in the early 20th century. The grid as a whole is based on an outdated structure that was not designed for today’s varying power demand requirements, such as for the internet data centers, or for the widescale integration of intermittent sources of electricity such as wind turbines and solar panels. The grid is also poorly equipped to withstand the many cyber, physical, and electromagnetic threats that exist today. 

These problems can cause extensive and expensive blackouts, such as the widespread outages across the Northeast in 2003 that cost $6 billion in damages. The possibility of foreign interference presents a threat multiplier. In 2015, a Russian assault on the Ukrainian grid cut power for six hours in the dead of winter. A similar attack on the U.S. grid is possible. In fact, the same malware the triggered the Ukraine attack has been found in US-based critical infrastructure facilities. 

There is a clear need to make the U.S. electric grid much more secure to thwart attacks, robust to withstand physical threats, resilient to ensure rapid and full recovery from adverse impacts, stronger to accommodate greater demands, and flexible to enable a broader deployment of clean-energy technologies.

Yet grid modernization is easier said than done. The U.S. electric grid is a massive, complex system that comprises various technologies for electricity generation, transmission, and distribution as well as multiple operators, regulators, and markets to ensure the continual flow of electricity. Few incentives or financially-attractive opportunities exist for grid stakeholders to demonstrate and deploy innovative models and technologies. And finally, the national-security benefits of a secure, robust, and resilient grid do not deliver direct, sufficient financial gains, creating a market failure that leaves the grid vulnerable to interference.

Plan of Action

The next administration should establish the Grid Resilience Innovation Demonstration (GRID) Network, a national-scale test facility designed to propel the nation toward a more secure, robust, and resilient grid that can strengthen economic and national security while enabling a clean-energy future. The GRID Network should comprise multiple, geographically distributed test beds that are widely accessible to institutions and researchers seeking to demonstrate technologies in prototypical environments. These test beds would be user facilities similar to those owned by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy (DOE).

The overall goal of the GRID Network would be to support development, demonstration, and deployment of innovations in grid operation and technology, which are needed to address the evolving energy needs and expanding risks. The types of innovations could run from small to large scale, and from technical to operations, for example, components for high-voltage transmission or distribution, smart meters and associated cyber controls, direct current connects and disconnects, and microgrid operations with a variety of sources, loads and sizes.

The GRID Network would focus on innovations at mid- to high technology-readiness levels, i.e., innovations that have already been demonstrated successful at a limited level and seem like promising candidates for scale-up and commercialization. GRID Network test beds would provide the capacity to test at all scales from individual components in situ up to full end-to-end tests from the electricity generator to the final use. As modernization of the grid continues to occur, the anticipated outcomes will continue to evolve, and this facility will enable more innovations to be developed rapidly and tested such that the decision and risk of implementation can be reduced, which in turn should facilitate deployment. After all, utilities and investors want proven technologies, not science projects. As a result, we will see a more resilient grid that is both more secure and more robust (i.e., less blackouts, more value, savings and/or avoided costs).

GRID Network test beds could serve as official sites for the government to validate and certify any concept or technology intended for use in national-security applications. Through partnerships with community colleges, test beds could also offer workforce-development opportunities and vocational training to prepare technicians to install and operate next-generation grid technologies.

Implicit in the proposed action is that there are innovative technologies and strategies for operation that could be tested and rapidly deployed. While this has not been demonstrated through a survey or collection of data, it is a reasonable assumption based on our knowledge of the research and development (R&D) that is being done in this area as well as some general issues that impact the rapid, successful advancement from R&D to demonstration and deployment (i.e., crossing the so-called “Valley of Death”). Having a user facility aimed at helping bridge that gap that is available to companies and researchers widely would encourage innovators and innovations to surface, as has been demonstrated to work well in the past in the DoD and DOE. A minimally viable prototype will be needed for testing, which focuses the role of the facility between “development” and “deployment.” The costs for testing would be covered by the government, and like the existing user facilities, access to apply for time on GRID would be open to all ideas through a merit-review process. As a result, innovators should be motivated to develop their ideas to a product or operations model that can be tested given the low or zero cost of testing because the value of a having a government-tested and demonstrated device or operating model will be very high.

As is typical for federally-funded user facilities, the GRID Network would be run by a private entity (e.g., an objective management organization) through a public-private partnership with government agencies: in this case, likely DoD and DOE. The partnership could be managed by either agency or by an external entity, such as the National Resilient Grid Authority (NRGA) conceptualized in a 2020 report from the National Commission on Grid Resilience. Existing microgrids and other assets at DoD and DOE sites could provide the foundation for the GRID Network. The GRID Network will also build on and enhance the grid-resilience and modernization efforts that were established and have been pursued at both agencies.

Establishing and managing the GRID Network would cost the Federal Government an estimated $25–50 million per year at the low end to $200–300 million per year at the high end. This funding range is consistent with the funding levels for similar research and development facilities that DOE and DoD have supported over the last 15 years. Funding at the high end would support more sophisticated, comprehensive testing equipment, would permit users to take more time to test ideas, and would permit testing of more high-risk, high-reward ideas. Funding at the high end would also support efforts beyond just testing, such as development of national standards and protocols for grid operations, pursuit of collaborative technologies that would benefit niche applications, such as defense resilience pilot projects, and technology certifications.

The U.S. electric grid must be modernized to enable more use of renewable energy, deploy storage, and assure we improve the resilience. A test facility, such as the GRID facility described above, could help with modernization and entice investments toward deployment of new technologies. As a result, federal investment in the GRID Network would pay off directly or indirectly in four key ways:

  1. Modernizing the U.S. electric grid will create shovel-ready construction jobs across the country. Since the GRID facility would be oriented toward rapid development and deployment of innovations, the facility could help enable aggressive and comprehensive modernization of the electric grid, which would involve construction jobs.
  2. Grid components that are critical to U.S. infrastructure and national security—ranging from sensors to transformers—must be made through a trusted U.S. supply chain. Investments in the GRID Network hence represent investments in American manufacturing.
  3. The GRID Network will support user generation of intellectual property and associated small business start-ups because some of the innovations that are tested and deployed will be manufactured, distributed and installed by start-ups, which will strengthen the U.S. supply chain. This new wave of business activity will propel the U.S. economy for years to come.
  4. Grid modernization is a huge effort that will cost at least $500 billion and likely $1–2 trillion. Investing in technologies that could facilitate modernization will retire risks for grid modernization as the decisions by the various grid operators will be based on testing at an applicable scale. As a result, the GRID facility should help ensure the costs for grid modernization are in the middle of the range rather than at the higher end or above.


The U.S. electric grid is a crucial piece of the nation’s infrastructure. If it fails, critical sectors such as finance, healthcare, transportation, defense, agriculture, and manufacturing are at risk of failure as well. Yet the grid remains unacceptably vulnerable to threats large and small. There is a real danger of attacks on the grid by adversarial nations, and natural disasters can wipe out large sections of the grid for hours, days, or longer. Even factors as seemingly trivial as mylar balloons, small arms fire, and broken tree branches can cause costly damage when they interfere with critical grid components. It is past time to create a more robust and resilient system. Creating a testing ground for innovative solutions in grid operations and technology is an important step: one that will not only shore up a glaring weakness in our national security, but will also boost our economy through shovel-ready construction projects, creation of new and good-paying jobs, and development of intellectual property.

Frequently Asked Questions
What pieces of this proposal are already in place?
The proposed GRID Network would leverage microgrids and other assets already distributed at DOE and DoD sites across the country. By linking these assets through a national-scale user facility, the GRID Network will ensure that these assets are put to their fullest use. The GRID Network would also build on and enhance the grid resilience and modernization efforts that both DOE and DoD have funded over the last 15 years.
How much does the federal government spend on the electric grid? What would additional spending achieve?
The amount the Federal Government spends on grid R&D and modernization varies but has been as high as $750 million and as low as about $50 million. The investment is supplemented by matching funds from private industry, as the grid is largely operated by private companies. There is not currently a federally-funded facility to support testing and scale-up of innovative grid operating models and technologies. Investing in such a facility would accelerate grid modernization and could perhaps cut grid-maintenance costs in the long term.
Why should the federal government take action on grid modernization instead of state or local government? What about the private sector?
Few systems are more complicated than the U.S. electric grid. The U.S. electric grid is managed by more than 3,000 public and private institutions (including generators, operators, and markets). Energy is often transmitted across state lines, which requires cooperation and coordination at multiple levels of government. As such, the private sector as well as state and local government will necessarily be involved in grid modernization. But in light of the importance of the grid to U.S. economic and national security, there are clear and specific roles for the Federal Government. For instance, the Federal Government can assure that new grid technologies and ideas have been tested and certified in order to mitigate risk of implementing those new technologies and ideas. The federal government can also help scale promising innovations quickly. A federally-funded GRID Network would be a key piece—but still only a piece—of a larger national grid-modernization effort.
Is the issue of grid modernization specific to the United States?

The technologies utilized in the U.S. electric grid is typical of electric grids in many other countries, particularly those that developed electricity distribution contemporaneously with the United States. However, the size and geographic diversity of our nation means that the U.S. electric grid is especially large and complex. To an extent, this complexity offers protection since no single attack or incident could impact the entirety of the national grid. However, our grid’s size and complexity also mean that coordinating grid modernization efforts in the United States is far more difficult than in other nations.

The GRID Network could help turn this bug into a feature. The United States has always excelled at out-innovating other countries, particularly for things at large scale. The GRID Network would allow U.S. innovators to field-test technologies and strategies in many different scenarios and conditions, and would help innovators commercialize promising solutions at a pace that other countries simply do not have the capacity to match. The GRID Network could hence address vulnerabilities in the U.S. grid while simultaneously enhancing the international competitiveness of our nation with respect to grid modernization.

What is the first step needed to get the GRID Network off the ground?
The first step is to develop a written plan that can form the basis for the funding requests and appropriations and the follow-on steps needed to establish the GRID Network. The plan would (1) identify the specific activities of the GRID Network, (2) inventory existing facilities and capabilities that could be integrated into the GRID Network, (3) identify new facilities and capabilities that would be needed to achieve GRID Network goals, (4) identify necessary approvals and propose an operating model for the facility, and (5) lay out a detailed roadmap for launching the facility, including conceptual cost, scope and schedule. Development of the plan should be carried out by a contractor and overseen by an interagency group.
What would a less ambitious version of this proposal look like?
The GRID Network could be operated at various scales: for instance, it could be piloted in a small
collection of states before being expanded nationwide. The roles and capabilities of component
test beds could be tailored based on available funding, and the path toward the full facility could
be established in the plan discussed above.

National Energy Storage Initiative

The next administration should establish a national initiative built around ambitious goals to accelerate development and deployment of dramatically improved energy-storage technologies. Developing such technologies would help establish a strategic new domestic manufacturing sector. Deploying such technologies would expand the range of low-carbon pathways available to fight climate change—especially those relying on variable renewable energy resources, like wind and solar power. Deploying such technologies would also improve the performance of smartphones, drones, and other vital electronic tools of the 21st century.

Challenge and Opportunity

Electricity systems, no matter how big or small, must instantaneously balance supply and demand, generation and load—or suffer blackouts. This imperative has long motivated scientists and technologists to seek the holy grail of affordable, reliable, durable, and safe energy storage. Yet, despite many decades of efforts, batteries remain expensive, fickle, short-lived, and dangerous for many applications. Other forms of energy storage, like thermal and compressed-air storage, suffer from major drawbacks as well. 

Radically improved energy-storage technologies would help the nation and the world solve some of their most pressing problems. Most urgently, improved energy storage would expand the range of low-carbon pathways to fight climate change and reduce dependence on fossil fuels by allowing the electricity grid to accommodate higher levels of renewable energy. Improved energy storage would allow electric vehicles (EVs) to better meet drivers’ expectations for value and performance, thereby speeding up EV adoption and further helping to address the climate challenge. Better batteries would also let people stop worrying about whether their electronic devices are charged, improving security and strengthening the economy in a world where these and other connected devices are ubiquitous.

Given the importance and magnitude of these opportunities, energy storage has become a critical industry of the future—one that nations around the world seek to capture. China and the European Union, for instance, are making significant strategic investments to build domestic capabilities for development and manufacturing of energy storage technologies. These and other international competitors are challenging the U.S. energy innovation ecosystem—our research universities, national laboratories, start-up companies, and established technology firms to invent, commercialize, and scale-up next-generation energy-storage technologies.

Opportunities by sector

Electric power

The rapidly dropping cost of wind and solar power has opened major pathways to decarbonize electricity systems. But these power generation technologies are variable: that is, their output fluctuates by the hour, day, and season. As the renewable share of generation rises on a grid, such fluctuations make balancing supply and demand increasingly difficult, threatening brownouts and blackouts. Grid-scale energy storage has the potential to address this challenge. Although one energy-storage technology (lithium-ion batteries) has been improved to the point that it has begun to make a significant impact on the grid, major gaps remain. Fully solving the grid-storage problem requires technologies that are much cheaper and last much longer than current systems. Grid-storage technologies must be able to hold enough electricity to power a grid for a week or more at a cost of just a few cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), while operating only a few times each year.


Lithium-ion batteries are also kick-starting the electrification of transportation. Their declining cost is one of the key factors helping to bring EVs into the mainstream. EVs are cleaner than gasoline-powered cars if they are charged on low-carbon electricity grids. EVs are also easier to maintain and cheaper to operate. However, the ultimate triumph of EVs in the auto market is far from assured. Batteries that are safer, rely on more abundant materials, allow vehicles to go 500 miles or more on a charge, last for at least a decade, and are easily recharged and recycled would make the success of EVs more likely, with huge payoffs for the global climate.


The suite of technologies sometimes lumped together as the “fourth industrial revolution” is another broad domain that would benefit from advances in energy storage. Robots, drones, sensors, and smartphones—and the systems by which they process and exchange information—have become essential tools in modern society.

Most of these electronics are more useful when they can operate without having to maintain a constant connection to the grid. Although batteries are becoming lighter and more efficient, the demands being placed on them are also rising, straining the limits of lithium-ion technology. An order-of-magnitude leap in the energy density of batteries— the amount of electricity stored in a given mass or volume—would unlock a diverse array of valuable new applications for a wide range of electronic devices. For instance, drones, whether they are being used by combat forces, farmers, or utility crews, would be able to stay aloft for days and carry more sophisticated payloads, such as weapons or sensors.

Domestic manufacturing

Paradigm-shifting improvements in energy storage technologies would also create opportunities to build domestic manufacturing capacity in a growing industry of the future. The supply chain for making lithium-ion batteries migrated to East Asia years ago. The largest battery factory for EVs in the United States, Tesla’s “giga-factory” in Reno, NV, is run by a joint venture with the Japanese-headquartered firm Panasonic. Tesla has been unable to fully master the finicky methods used to make battery cells. Other U.S.- based EV assembly plants rely on Asian-headquartered battery contractors as well. 

Nonetheless, the United States continues to generate new energy storage technologies, including some that could supplant the current generation of lithium-ion batteries. For example, Sila Nanotechnologies, founded in 2011 and based in the San Francisco Bay Area, raised $215 million in 2019 to scale up its manufacturing activity. A half-dozen other U.S.-based battery start-ups have also raised large funding rounds in the past year. Investors include not only venture-capital firms, but also big companies based in Europe and Asia as well as North America. It remains to be seen where the battery supply chain of the future will be located.

Plan of Action

The next administration, building on the Department of Energy’s (DOE) recently announced “Energy Storage Grand Challenge,” should establish a National Energy Storage Initiative (NESI) built around ambitious goals to accelerate development and deployment of dramatically improved energy-storage technologies. These goals should include widespread adoption of:

The NESI should also seek to achieve economic and international goals such as:

The NESI will require deep collaboration among key federal agencies and with the private sector, academia, and states and localities. This initiative would galvanize the still-thriving energy-storage science and technology community in the United States, spurring the development of better energy-storage technologies and ensuring that the next generation of storage devices are built here. The case for the NESI is two-fold. First, expanded research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) funding is needed to address market failures in the energy-storage domain. Expanded funding would enable scientific and mission agencies to pursue a diverse array of promising opportunities that have gone un- or under-explored. The result would be new energy-storage materials and concepts, breaking through barriers that have limited current technologies. Second, federal resources and leadership—as well as deep engagement with the private industrial and financial sectors and with key states and localities—are crucial for domestic scale-up and manufacturing made possible by this expanded RD&D portfolio. International competition surrounding energy storage is already fierce. China, in particular, has made no secret of its plan to dominate the global battery and EV industries. The United States must assert leadership on energy storage or risk being left behind.


The NESI should include four key components: (1) White House leadership and coordination, (2) a federal RD&D budget commitment, (3) increased agency participation and use of an array of policy tools, and (4) mobilization of non-federal actors to undertake aligned actions.

White House leadership and coordination

An Executive Order (EO) from the White House, implemented by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), would be the foundational action to launch the NESI. White House leadership and attention would catalyze implementing agencies to identify lead units and staff members for the interagency initiative and to undertake internal coordination among their component units (e.g., the science and applied energy offices within DOE). OSTP, NSTC, and agency staff would spearhead the initiative, driving its progress throughout the executive branch and mobilizing support in Congress, industry, science, and the public.


Delivering on the aforementioned goals would require, at a minimum, tripling current spending on energy storage RD&D programs over five years. The most comprehensive estimate of federal RD&D spending on energy storage comes from a 2015 OMB interagency “crosscut”: $300 million. Increasing spending to $900 million or more per year would allow participating agencies to take the following actions:

Increased agency participation and use of other policy tools

In addition to DOE, the Departments of Agriculture (USDA), Commerce (DOC), Defense (DOD), Health and Human Services (HHS), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Transportation (DOT) as well as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) should be mobilized to accelerate innovation in energy storage. DOC, DOD, HHS, and NSF should collaborate with DOE in expanding the energy storage RD&D enterprise. The other agencies, along with DOE and DOD, should use policy tools such as procurement, regulation, and investment support (e.g., loan guarantees) to help “pull” nascent energy-storage technologies into markets and to assist in establishing domestic production capacity. Tax incentives, legislated by Congress and administered by executive agencies, may also be helpful to accelerate market growth and drive down costs for particular technologies.

Mobilization of non-federal actors

Academia and industry are critical to the success of energy-storage RD&D, manufacturing, and adoption. The vast scope of energy-storage applications amplifies the importance of engaging with a wide variety of end-user industries—especially power-system vendors, utilities, electronics manufacturers, and automakers—as well as producers of storage technology. States and localities, many of which have announced ambitious goals for grid-scale storage, should also be incorporated into the NESI. A few states could house federally supported manufacturing and innovation “clusters” for energy-storage solutions. All states could accelerate adoption of improved energystorage technologies by fostering receptive markets: for instance, by reforming electricity regulation.


The proposed NESI is similar to successful efforts such as the Clinton administration’s nanotechnology initiative and the Obama administration’s advanced manufacturing initiative. Such initiatives mobilize and coordinate multiple agencies in pursuit of technological capabilities that will contribute significantly to a set of broadly agreed national goals. Success depends on strong presidential commitment at the start and cultivation of stakeholders across partisan, regional, and sectoral lines over time. Effective technology initiatives have major on-the-ground impacts and ultimately become self-sustaining. Two keys to success are (1) White House leadership and attention to foster interagency cooperation, and (2) increased agency budgets to limit resistance from incumbent programs.

Federal funding for energy-storage science and technology has a long track record, particularly with regard to basic research. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) expanded federal energy-storage funding considerably in the 2010s. ARRA funding supported establishment of the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy (ARPA-E), which has become a major source of funding for applied research and prototype development in energy storage. ARRA funding also supported the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR) at Argonne National Laboratory; a collaborative demonstration program within DOE’s Office of Electricity that worked with utilities, states, and local governments; and loan guarantees for battery manufacturing and grid-scale storage projects. 

Many of these investments have paid off handsomely. For instance, an evaluation by the National Academies found that ARPA-E’s funding of energy-storage technology has been “highly productive with respect to accelerating commercialization” and led to the formation of at least six new companies in the field. JCESR was renewed for an additional five years in 2018. However, the demonstration and manufacturing elements of the ARRA-funded push were not sustained, primarily due to ideological objections by the Congressional majority that came in after the 2010 midterm elections. 

The Department of Energy announced an Energy Storage Grand Challenge on January 8, 2020. This initiative is a welcome step toward the broader initiative outlined in this paper. It seeks ambitious advances in technology, rapid commercialization, and the creation of a domestic manufacturing supply chain. But it does not extend beyond DOE, and whether it will be implemented with the appropriate resources and presidential support is uncertain.

International context

Many countries have made energy storage a priority. The European Union has embarked on a multi-billion-dollar battery initiative that led to the establishment of Northvolt, a European-owned battery cell manufacturing start-up. Volkswagen bought 20% of Northvolt and is working with it to build a second cell factory. Energy storage and EVs are among the sectors targeted by China in its Made in China 2025 program. Massive subsidies from all levels of the Chinese government have flowed through a variety of channels to energy storage projects and companies to fulfill this program, helping China become the world’s largest EV market (with more than 50% market share). Korea, Japan, and India are among the other countries undertaking national energy storage initiatives.

Although the global race to advance energy-storage technology is intense, the United States possesses many strengths that would allow a domestic energy-storage effort to succeed. These strengths include outstanding research capabilities at universities and national laboratories, a vibrant start-up ecosystem, and a strong industrial sector. The NESI would provide the leadership, funding, and coordination needed to realize the full potential of these assets. It is also important for the United States to foster international cooperation around science underlying energy-storage technology. Scientific knowledge is a global public good that will be under-provided without the leadership of the world’s top scientific nation.

Stakeholder support

The NESI has a wide range of potential champions and advocates on both sides of the aisle. Congressional Republicans have expressed their support for energy storage through expanded RD&D funding and more ambitious authorizations. The administration’s new grand challenge taps into this legislative support. Environmental advocates on the left of the political spectrum are also supportive, perceiving limited energy storage as the biggest technological barrier to expanded deployment of renewables. Similar enthusiasm may be expected from the research community and investors, as well as from states seeking to build a domestic energy-storage industry. These interests have been frustrated by the “invent here, produce there” outcomes of past breakthroughs, such as lithium-ion batteries.

Technology end users may be less enthusiastic or indifferent. Low prices in the short term may be more important to them than innovation in the long run. They may also see the location and ownership of production facilities as irrelevant or argue that the current global division of labor, in which Asian factories built with cheap public-investment capital supply U.S. needs, is favorable for the United States. Other skeptics may argue that when it comes to supporting expanded deployment of renewables, investing in demand response, larger grids, or other forms of low-carbon electricity generation, such as nuclear power or natural gas plants with carbon capture systems, are better options than energy storage.

Goals and metrics

The overarching (e.g., within 10 years) goal of NESI is to make the United States a major center for energy storage innovation and production. 

One essential short-term step towards achieving this goal is establishing key organizational components of the NESI, such as an interagency working group and a mechanism to engage with non-federal stakeholders, including industry, academia, and states. A second critical step is expanding budgets for relevant federal agencies to put them on a pathway to triple federal funding for energy-storage RD&D. 

In the medium term, metrics such as growth in scientific publications and patents, formation of new energy-storage companies, equity and project investment, product introduction, and manufacturing-cost reduction will provide insights on progress. 

In the long term, success of the NESI should be assessed by the level of market penetration of new energy-storage storage products across application domains including electric power, transportation, and electronics in the context of a growing overall storage market. Success of the NESI should also be assessed through consideration of the international trade balance related to energy storage and adoption of U.S.-developed energy-storage technologies.

Proposed initial steps

The next president should sign an EO establishing the NESI and directing the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to convene a federal interagency task force. The task force should prepare a strategic plan and develop a budget for the initiative in consultation with key stakeholders. The plan should identify technological needs and opportunities and set specific objectives, taking into account global competition and cooperation with respect to energy storage. Congress should support the NESI by appropriating funding needed to implement the strategic plan, and by providing additional authorization as required.

Implementing agencies should pursue energy-storage RD&D as it relates to their respective missions, while collaborating to manage overlaps and avoid gaps. RD&D activities should strengthen the intramural and extramural research and industrial communities. As innovative storage technologies reach maturity, DOC, DOD, and DOE should work with states and regional economic-development agencies to foster markets and develop manufacturing capabilities. Congress should provide tax incentives that help to pull these technologies into the market, thereby driving down cost and expanding deployment.


Energy-storage technologies in widespread use today are not good enough to meet fundamental 21st-century challenges, including climate change, economic growth, and international security. A national initiative to accelerate domestic development and deployment of dramatically improved energy-storage technologies would position the United States to lead the world in addressing these challenges while building its economy. Although global competition in energy storage is fierce, our nation has strong capabilities that—if used strategically—position the United States to catch up with and ultimately surpass its rivals in this vital emerging industry. The NESI provides a pathway for the next president to translate this vision into reality.