Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Improving the U.S. Electric Transmission Grid to Accomodate More Renewable Generation

The key to integrating additional renewable energy into America's electric energy portfolio is heavily linked to improving the electric transmission system. The "problem" or situation as it now stands is that where renewable generation is (or could be) most abundant are in places where the grid does not exist (at least in a strong enough manner to carry all of the generation).

But what are the big issues when looking at improving the transmission system? Two of the biggest are: (1) transmission siting; and (2) construction funding issues according to Ed Comer, general counsel at the Edison Electric Insitute (EEI, which is an industry-supported group).

Historically transmission siting issues have been handled at state level. Several years ago, however, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) was given siting authority in two corridors on the east coast. However, FERC has not been able to successfully (i.e., without a rash of lawsuits) site any new lines. Mr. Comer thinks that in order to really get things moving, transmission siting should be handled almost entirely at federal level. But this will take new legislation.

Exactly how the federal government and the states would divide this role (e.g., perhaps allowing the states to undertake some local siting) represents a major political battle that is just beginning. Another related issue involves the complexities of siting on federal lands and coordinating agency permitting decisions. Finally, there is the matter of how NEPA and the endangered species permitting issues will be handled, he said.

In terms of construction funding, there is private funding available if developers can obtain timely answers to siting requests. However, even with adequate private funding regulators will have to also consider the matter of cost recovery for transmission line developers to be intersted in financing such projects, he said.

What sorts of resources are going to be required to achieve a five percent increase in renewables integration? According to Mr. Comer, 10,000 miles of high voltage transmission lines costing $50 billion will be needed. And for a 20 percent renewables increase? The numbers jump to 15,000 miles of new transmission lines and an investment of $80 billion.

One item that Mr. Comer mentioned that has always puzzled me. Why not put the lines underground? From an engineering perspective this would not work because the lines can sometimes become very hot. Consequently, above ground is the only option and with that comes the potential lots of community opposition.

In conclusion, generating the renewable energy is only the first step in integrating it into the nation's grid. Adequate transmission lines -- and all of the related issues -- will need to be resolved before significant progress will be made. On the other hand, this represents huge opportunities for those who understand the policies, economics, and technology related to renewables.

For more information (from the electric utility industry perspective) about improving the grid system, see Transforming America's Power Industry.

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