Expanding the U.S. Transmission Grid: Past Mistakes and Future Solutions

The U.S. electricity grid is in desperate need of an update. Currently, the country has more than 164,000 miles of high-voltage electric transmission lines. They power millions of American homes, making the grid a vital component of U.S. energy security. But despite the country’s economic and technological growth of the past three decades, the transmission system has remained mostly untouched, becoming increasingly outdated and inefficient.

Updating the electric transmission grid is imperative for a transition to a clean energy economy.

The U.S. Department of Energy reports that total distribution losses, or the difference between the energy produced at power plants and the energy sold to end consumers, grew from 5 percent to 9.5 percent between 1970 and 2001. The resulting power outages and disturbances now cost the U.S. economy between $25 billion and $180 billion per year. More importantly, the continued reliance on an outdated transmission system makes it increasingly difficult to integrate low-carbon energy sources into the grid.

The pending American Clean Energy Leadership Act of 2009 (ACELA) introduces a new planning strategy for grid renovation, and a recently released docket by the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee (FERC) gives further guidance for updating the system. ACELA promotes the adoption of “smart-grid” technologies such as net-metering and time-sensitive pricing, and directs FERC to develop an inter-connection-wide transmission plan for certain power production facilities. This provides a good overview of goals and standards when grid updates are under way.

Yet questions remain about the actual methods and processes for implementing this grid upgrade. Who is responsible for planning and building new transmission lines? How will the necessary funds be generated? How will the country utilize renewable energy technologies with the new grid? This week, the Environment and Energy Study Institute and WIRES attempted to answer some of these questions at a briefing that addressed the challenges facing states, the federal government, and regulatory agencies as they attempt to update the U.S. electric distribution system.

So far, strategies to integrate renewable sources into the grid have typically fallen into two categories. The first utilizes federal authority to plan transmission lines that span large regions of the country. The second option places control in the hands of individual states and maintains that costs and benefits should be allocated based on “measurable benefits” to consumers and generators.

But according to economist Johannes Pfeifenberger of the Brattle Group, the best approach is to take a middle ground. He believes that planning and cost-allocations should be conducted within small multi-state pockets, or “sub-regions,” with similar energy profiles. Because these regions would have comparable needs and goals, the utilities and government would be more likely to cooperate with each other. With such politically manageable areas, it would also be easier for the federal government to contemplate realistic national goals for grid efficiency and work with sub-regional planning groups toward their implementation.

In the U.S. West, a “sub-regional” approach has already shown great success in integrating renewable technologies into the grid. According to a recent study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the western United States has the ability to meet 35 percent of its electricity needs through wind and solar power by 2017, cutting carbon dioxide emissions by up to 45 percent. And since the western power grid is characterized by close coordination among utilities across the region, which makes it easier to overcome the challenge of natural fluctuations within wind and solar energy production, this ambitious scenario wouldn’t require any additional infrastructure to the power grid.

Einstein famously defined insanity as repeating the same thing over and over and expecting a different result each time. Alarmingly, this cyclical logic can be seen in current U.S. energy policy, epitomized by the recent approval of another BP oil exploration project in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. This same logic has perpetuated the outdated high-voltage electric transmission system for years. The existing grid is focused on connecting one power plant at a time, with haphazard attempts at tweaking the infrastructure to satisfy short-term goals. But with U.S. energy policy at a crossroads, now is the ideal time to explore new and innovative solutions for the nation’s grid. And the idea of sub-regional planning seems like a promising start.

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