Jon E. Jipping, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, ITC Holdings, itcholdings.com
To meet the nation’s future energy needs, America must develop a high-voltage transmission backbone.
In the not-too-distant future, millions of Americans will begin their days by unplugging their fully charged electric vehicles and driving to work. Imagine that the nation has greatly reduced its dependence on foreign oil, made significant strides to reduce carbon emissions, and is relying increasingly on renewables, such as wind, solar, and geothermal sources for its energy needs. The technology to reach these goals and more is available today. All that’s lacking to make this energy utopia a reality is a strong national energy policy and a modern electric transmission grid.
As a nation, the U.S. has always responded amazingly well to challenges and adversity. When abruptly thrust into World War II, auto factories quickly retooled and supplied American troops with vehicles and hardware necessary to win the war. In 1961, when President Kennedy challenged the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to put a man on the moon before the decade was out, U.S. scientists put together a team effort to win the space race and enable a “…giant leap for mankind.” President Obama recently set a goal to put a million electric cars on American roads by 2015, only five years away. U.S. auto manufacturers and others are responding with plans to offer mass-produced electric vehicles to the general public as soon as this year.
More than half the states in the U.S. have adopted renewable portfolio standards, which typically require electricity providers to obtain a minimum percentage of power from renewable energy resources by a specific date. Wind and solar farms are popping up where wind, sunshine, or both are abundant. Momentum, it seems, is on the side of those who want to see America achieve energy independence partially fueled by renewables. However, change of this magnitude won’t happen without overcoming significant obstacles.
The aging infrastructure
America operates about 164,000 miles of high-voltage electric transmission lines. In many ways, electric transmission makes the American way of life possible. In fact, the National Academy of Engineering called electrification one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century.
Despite its vital role in this achievement, the transmission grid has been neglected and allowed to become outdated over the past three decades. While electricity demand increased by about 25% since 1990, investment in new facilities has decreased about 30%. While investments are still being made, the growth of the transmission system hasn’t kept up with demand.
Today, 70% of the nation’s transmission lines and large power transformers are at least 30 years old. Experts agree that America’s transmission grid is in need of investment:
• The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s energy infrastructure a D in the organization’s 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.
• According to the U.S. DOE, transmission and distribution losses grew from about 5% in 1970 to 9.5% in 2001, primarily due to heavier use and more frequent congestion.
• The North American Electric Reliability Corporation has documented that the present transmission system will require “significant transmission additions and reinforcements” to accommodate the widespread integration of renewable resources.
Congested transmission lines and an outdated infrastructure have compromised efficiency and led to brownouts and blackouts. According to the DOE, major power outages and power quality disturbances cost our economy between $25 billion and $180 billion annually.
While Americans consume more electricity (demand is expected to increase 25% by 2030), the country relies on a transmission system that was not designed to meet the demands of today’s society. Meeting the nation’s goals of energy security, renewable-energy development, energy sustainability and increased economic efficiencies will require a major investment in the electricity transmission infrastructure.
The lack of comprehensive strategic planning for the nation’s electric transmission system presents another challenge. The current grid has been built out one power plant at a time, with little regard for broad, national goals. This narrow approach has limited the country’s ability to fully harness its domestic energy potential.
According to interconnection queue databases, there are almost 300,000 MW of proposed wind projects (more than
20% of the nation’s electricity needs) waiting to connect to the grid because of inadequate capacity.
While renewable energy sources are abundant, many of them are in sparsely populated areas, such as the upper Great Plains states. Moving electricity from wind-producing regions to population centers farther east requires extra-high-voltage transmission lines that span thousands of miles. That modern transmission network simply does not exist in the United States.
Good news is that extra-high-voltage transmission lines of 765 kilovolts (kV) require less right-of-way and are inherently more reliable than the 345 kV transmission lines in common use today. Significantly, a 765 kV transmission line incurs about half the losses of a 345 kV line carrying the same amount of power. Just as important, one 765 kV line can carry the same amount of electricity as six single-circuit 345 kV lines.
In February last year, ITC unveiled its proposed Green Power Express project, an energy superhighway that would reliably and efficiently deliver renewable energy from wind-abundant areas of the upper Midwest to Midwestern and Eastern states that demand clean, renewable energy. Green Power Express would facilitate the movement of 12,000 MW of power over a 3,000-mile network of extra-high-voltage (765 kV) transmission lines, and result in a reduction of up to 34 million metric tons of carbon emissions, which is equivalent to the annual emissions of about seven to nine 600 MW coal-fired plants, or nine to eleven million automobiles.
The project spans seven states (ND, SD, MN, IA, WI, IL and IN) and two regional transmission operators (RTOs), and is a viable solution and catalyst for change driving serious discussion on important energy policies, such as how America plans, sites, and allocates costs for much-needed, large-scale transmission projects.
A need for leadership
In 1941, President Roosevelt appointed a committee to determine the need for a national highway system. The better known history is from the early 1950s, when President Eisenhower pushed Congress for action that resulted in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which provided funding and, more importantly, a plan for an extended highway network. The forward-looking standards that resulted called for roads designed for speeds of 50 to 70 mph that would feature 12-foot-wide lanes and a minimum of two lanes in each direction, an approach that continues to meet society’s needs more than 50 years later.
A national highway system has paid enormous dividends, including connecting America’s cities and towns, improving safety, and allowing businesses to expand from coast to coast. An energy superhighway would have a similar impact on the country. If our nation is to reduce its dependence on foreign oil, meet renewable energy standards, and address environmental challenges, it must modernize the rules that govern the grid. To achieve these goals, we need visionary leaders who will set wheels in motion for a high-voltage transmission backbone to support electric reliability, a competitive energy market, and the interconnection of all generating sources, including renewables. Like the national highway system, a modern grid should be designed with the future in mind, not just the present. WPE
Filed Under: News
Jon Rennie says
Great article. You are right on track with what we need!