Tackling Climate Change
At the speed of light
by Scott Gates
Few things can cripple power lines quite like an ice storm. In January, one of the largest such storms on record swept through the central United States, coating power lines with up to 3 inches of ice. Thousands of miles of power lines and tens of thousands of utility poles snapped under the weight, leaving some 1.3 million homes and businesses in the dark.
Federal disaster areas were declared in Arkansas, Kentucky and Missouri. In Arkansas, 35,000 electric co-op-owned poles were left broken and splintered. Early estimates put the damage to Missouri electric cooperatives at $180 million to $190 million; Kentucky electric co-ops suffered more than $106 million in damages.
Power plants that produce our electricity often make headlines. But as the 2009 ice storm demonstrated, the complex network of power lines crisscrossing the country remains critical to supplying consumers with safe, reliable and affordable electricity. At a time when increasing renewable electricity generation and energy efficiency are national priorities, the success of both relies on a well-maintained delivery system.
The tricky thing about electricity is that it generally can’t be stored like water or gas. What’s more, electricity moves at the speed of light along the path of least resistance. This basic principle calls for a carefully monitored, intricate system to move it 24 hours a day, notes the Princeton, N.J.-based North American Electric Reliability Corp., which oversees reliability of the electric transmission grid covering the United States, most of Canada and one Mexican state.
Literally millions of miles of power lines span the United States in a complex series of “highways.” These lines can be broken into two main categories: transmission, the high-voltage “interstates” that move electricity over vast distances; and distribution, the “local roads” that run to homes and businesses. Electric cooperatives own and maintain roughly 65,000 miles, or 6 percent, of the nation’s transmission lines and 2.5 million miles, or 42 percent, of its distribution lines. This co-op-maintained system could stretch the distance to the moon and back five times.
This electric transmission grid, which has been described as the largest machine ever built, has evolved and grown over the past century. Yet today’s transmission grid struggles to meet the demands of carrying larger volumes of electricity (required by our digital economy) and hauling blocks of power long distances. And as more power plants, including renewable energy projects like wind farms, come on-line, it’s clear that not only is the transmission grid being asked to do more than was originally envisioned, but the investment to build more transmission hasn’t kept pace.
“There hasn’t been any significant backbone transmission added to the grid in quite some time,” says Barry Lawson with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. “Now there’s a critical need for both new lines and improved efficiencies for existing lines, especially if the country decides to move forward with climate change legislation.”
Federal climate change policy would rely on developing technology for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel-burning power plants, as well as boosting energy efficiency and developing more sources of renewable energy. The latter two both impact the grid: Increasing transmission efficiency to better move and use electricity can potentially reduce the need for more generation in the near future. Renewable energy resources likely will require construction of entirely new transmission lines.
Wind, solar, geothermal and other forms of renewable energy typically share a common setback: The areas where the power can be generated are not population centers. For remote renewable facilities to be as beneficial as possible, associated transmission lines also must be built to move the power to where folks live.
“The electricity transmission and distribution system has become a national priority,” declares U.S. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu. “Before, in the last century, we generated electricity locally, and we used it locally. But because our renewable resources are in very distant parts of the country — for example, in the Dakotas, where there are incredible wind resources, or in the Southwest where there are incredible solar resources — you want to be able to move that energy to population centers. We do not have the system to do that today.”
Before any transmission lines are actually built, transmission planners must go through a lengthy approval process. The effort begins with a proposed route, along with possible alternatives, that take advantage of existing rights of way. Once initial plans are made, a public outreach process begins. The pros and cons of new transmission lines are explained to communities along the proposed routes. If there is little or no opposition, the permitting process within the impacted states can begin. However, there is typically significant opposition to new transmission lines.
“Permitting entails a time-consuming, often expensive process that does not have a certain outcome,” continues Lawson. “In the end, you may or may not receive all of the required siting approvals. Without siting approval, a project may be terminated or another proposal may be made and the process starts over again.”
Even if the permitting process goes well, special interest groups opposed to transmission lines can put in place procedural roadblocks, including legal challenges.
“The definition of a ‘smart grid’ varies,” says Jay Morrison, NRECA senior regulatory counsel. “The common thread through all smart grid technology is greater communication and integration between the various pieces of the grid, from the power plants generating electricity to the homes and businesses using it.”
Electric cooperatives have been using “smart” components for years. At least one half have deployed an Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) in some fashion, which has been described as the foundation for a smart grid. AMI relies on high-tech meters to relay data between a co-op and where electricity is used. This information can be used to track use, pinpoint outages and control automated appliances.
“The smart grid is about making the use and delivery of electricity more reliable and efficient,” says Morrison. “Any new smart grid elements should be consumer-focused and added to the system only when they’re proven to be useful. Too much ‘smarts’ only raises consumers costs.”
Through the federal stimulus bill signed into law in February, the U.S. Department of Energy received $4.5 billion for a wide range of smart grid demonstration projects. Utilities are working to determine the most useful ways to turn these funds into results.
“If utilities have a way to collect data, such as smart meters, and two-way communication to bring that data in, they can manage the grid much more efficiently,” says Arshad Mansoor, vice president for power delivery at the Electric Power Research Institute. “Realistically, 15 percent of the energy it takes to generate, transmit and distribute electricity can be saved with a more efficient system. That’s roughly what it takes to power New York City for a year.”
Whatever range of technologies is used to build a smarter grid, it must make sense for consumers footing electric bills, NRECA’s Lawson says. “There is a great need for new transmission, and a smart grid could provide useful benefits. But it needs to be something consumers want, and it must be affordable. It should help consumers save money, not spend it.”
Gates is a writer for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
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