Building the 21st Century Transmission Super Grid

Plans to increase the penetration of renewable electrical generation into the United States face a number of challenges. Perhaps the most significant is that the transmission infrastructure was not designed to move large amounts of power over the distances or from the areas that will be required to achieve our renewable energy potential.

While issues such as installation of additional grid level storage, improving the “intelligence” of the distribution grid, and enabling efficient transactions with distributed third party generator and electric vehicle owners are important components of establishing a 21st century electric infrastructure, all such issues pale in comparison to the need for a transmission super-grid.

The United States is currently saddled with a transmission system that is analogous to our old state and local highway system that existed in the 1950s. When President Eisenhower identified a need to be able to move large quantities of military personnel over long distances for national security reasons, he correctly identified that an Interstate Highway System needed to be overlaid on the existing state, local, and national system. The country needs exactly an analogous approach for the existing transmission system, a super-grid which overlays the existing high voltage transmission system, connecting the country from coast to coast and allowing thousands of MW to be transferred over hundreds of miles.

Regulatory oversight of transmission falls in under federal and state authorities with siting and line approval being primarily under state authority. While this regulatory structure has worked reasonably well in the past, today it doesn’t address the issue that natural electrical regions do not conform to state boundaries and typically span multiple states. In this environment, a transmission project needs parallel reviews for each state in which they plan to operate. This process creates overlapping and duplicative efforts that slow or even stall the process. A single authority, in this case federal, needs to assert overall control of transmission line siting in the United States.

While there are some technical issues that must be resolved, there are no fundamental technologies that must be invented to enable this. All of the technology necessary to accomplish what is needed is available. The issues associated with establishing a transmission system that supports a 21st century electric network are virtually all institutional and regulatory. Transmission projects generate a significant amount of public opposition, no matter how critical the need. A strong resolve will be needed by the country’s leaders to implement the required changes, but the technology is available and the industry is capable of implementing what is necessary. Public leadership and vision are what is required.

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Heinrich Böll Foundation
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