Transmission: The missing link in the renewables revolution


You want to cut carbon to the levels recommended by the International Panel on Climate Change? Then you’ll need 100,000 Megawatts of new renewable power integrated into the electrical grid. And in order to get that, you’ll need a lot -- try 25,000 miles -- of new high voltage transmission lines.

That was the message Gary Graham, of Western Resource Advocates, was pushing at a recent conference on clean energy and transmission in Denver, Colo. Graham wasn’t alone. One speaker and panelist after another, from former Colo. Gov. Bill Ritter to the National Resource Defense Council’s Carl Zichella, repeated the message in various forms: We must expand, upgrade and rethink our current electrical grid in order to put solar and wind on par with coal and natural gas in our energy mix.

While the entire national grid needs attention, our distinct piece of that grid -- the Western Interconnect -- is perhaps the most challenging. Its 100,000 miles of high voltage transmission lines were mostly built to ship power from big coal and hydroelectric plants (generators) to population centers (loads). Now, the capacity in those power lines is, for the most part, already reserved. And the lines don't necessarily stretch into the areas where big wind and solar potential exists.

Parts of Central and Eastern New Mexico, for example, are primed for turbines. The winds there are of a high grade, the land is mostly owned by drought-stricken farmers and ranchers, who yearn for the revenues turbines on their land would bring, and environmental impacts aren’t a huge issue. The turbines have yet to sprout like weeds, however, because there’s no way to get the power to where it’s needed.

That’s in part because transmission lines are still one of the most difficult energy projects to realize. The proposed Sun-Zia line, for example, which would stretch from central New Mexico to Phoenix, would need the go-ahead from several jurisdictions. The transmission line builder would also have to deal with both New Mexico and Arizona regulators, who have the power to nix the deal. In 2007, for example, Arizona regulators shut down a proposed power line because they worried that exporting power to California would raise their state’s prices. While the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission could step in in such an instance and force a natural gas line through, it has no such power with transmission lines. And in the West, there’s no regional transmission planning authority with any sort of power. While many renewables advocates would like to see a more empowered FERC, they also acknowledge that giving more power to powerlines is a tough sell in the West -- both private property advocates and environmentalists worry about the feds forcing transmission down their throats.

Environmentalists are protesting Sun-Zia because they don’t want 200-foot towers to cut through wild lands, particularly the San Pedro River valley. That the lines carry green power is little comfort: Given the nature of the grid, and laws that mandate open access to transmission, it’s impossible to say that fossil fuel-generated power will never travel the line, as well. Landowners are not keen on power lines crackling over their houses. In California, a line that would carry wind power from near Tehachapi to the Los Angeles area has been held up by strong resistance from the well-to-do community of Chino Hills.

Clearly, the folks at the conference have a hard row to hoe. Brian Parsons, of the National Renewable Energy Laboratories, said that his organization believes it is possible for the nation to get 80 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2050. But to get there will require billions of dollars of investment -- not to mention navigating the arduous, years-long permitting process -- in new transmission each year until then. Determining how to expand, retrofit and upgrade the current fossil fuel-centric electric grid to accommodate all those renewables will be one of the biggest challenges facing utilities and policymakers in coming years.

The good news is that there are things can be done while waiting for the big new transmission projects to get off the ground. The way the grid is operated can be changed to better “geographically smooth” intermittent renewable power sources. We can adopt new ways of marketing power, to make the current grid more flexible. And, as Zichella pointed out, renewable power can catch a ride on transmission lines that are getting a bit of extra space thanks to coal-fired power plant retirements.

The grid is wonderfully and terribly complex, and throwing in solar and wind makes it even more so. I’ll be diving into this complexity in future issues of this blog and the HCN magazine. So stay tuned.

Photo: Powerlines in Nevada, by the author.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. His Twitter handle is @jonnypeace.

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