This is a post re-blogged from Politico Magazine written by Bill Richardson, former Secretary of Energy and former Governor of New Mexico.
As secretary of energy in the Clinton administration, I often characterized the U.S. power transmission system as resembling a “Third World grid.” My aim was to highlight the shortcomings of the networks that deliver electric power to businesses and households throughout the United States—and the urgency of fixing this enormous problem.
Unfortunately, more than a decade later, the grid is little improved, and I’m still using the same analogy.
Harsh? Perhaps. But if America is going to meet the ambitious clean-energy goals the president has laid out, we’re going to have to do better. We are producing a lot more energy from renewable sources than we were 10 years ago—yet it’s not clear our faltering grid systems are capable of transmitting it from sites far removed from the population centers that traditional grid outlets were intended to serve.
Our electric systems has evolved over the past 100 years into what has become a balkanized system with hundreds of regional and local proprietors operating like fiefdoms rather than what is needed—an integrated, coordinated national grid system.
As such, we now have something of a grid clutter that is sustained by more than 9,000 generating plants and around 300,000 miles of transmission lines spread around the United States. If this continues unaddressed, it will eventually cause a substantial deterioration in our grid system’s security and reliability throughout the country. If the installed capacity continues to grow, with load-demand increases of around 3 to 4 percent, the current system might prove insufficient to support economic growth and revitalization of the country’s manufacturing industries.
It is time to consider taking a nationwide approach to the grid, not only to deal with all that jurisdictional friction but also to employ new technologies to maximize our energy resources, whether they are fossil fuels, wind, solar, hydro or nuclear plants.
Addressing this situation is especially urgent if we are to maximize the use and benefits of America’s diverse energy production, notably solar and wind energy. For example, growing wind power in the Midwest, notably Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, urgently needs a larger interregional transmission capability if it is to deliver power to eastern neighbor power grids. Even within large states such as California and New York, an ultra-transmission capability is also needed to effectively strengthen the grid structure.
The integrity of the power system is also a major concern. In the last few years, severe weather events have torn down transmission lines and crippled power-supply systems at a time when power is desperately needed. These harsh, often tragic, weather conditions are causing power outages that are becoming all too frequent, the most glaring example being Hurricane Sandy, which caused considerable damage along the east coast states last October. And the northeastern America blackout in August 2003 should be a clear warning what a nightmare an aged and weak grid structure with less coordinated control technologies can be.
Other countries are finding ways to address these problems. China, for example, is looking beyond its heavy dependence on coal and fossil fuels and is now aggressively pursuing renewable energy. The effort has made China a global leader in wind and solar technology and a major exporter of solar panels and wind turbines to many developed countries. But China is also upgrading its grid to enable a far more cost-efficient means of distributing power, covering vast regions throughout the country.
China’s State Grid Corporation has invested a breathtaking $100 billion in ultra-high voltage (UHV) technology that promises to remedy many of the power problems that have plagued China and other advanced countries for decades. China’s biggest challenge is similar to ours: linking the country’s new renewable installations, located in areas far away from the urbanized east coast, where energy demand is soaring. Without some form of UHV technology, energy from renewables simply cannot reach its destination markets efficiently. UHV transmission can also help optimize coal consumption by improving efficiency, both generation and transmission, to minimize load losses over long distances and reduce the intensity of greenhouse-gas emissions, a persistent challenge facing most industrialized countries.
If this new and promising transmission technology can deliver on its potential, improving the environment while increasing efficiency, can it possibly hold promise for America’s aging grid system?
I certainly appreciate that the costs associated with upgrading America’s electric grid will be a tough call for those involved. Some studies estimate that a business-as-usual approach will require investment of $18.5 billion over two decades, while a system designed to integrate renewables like wind energy on a large scale would cost more than $100 billion. And that’s to say nothing of the difficulty of finding and negotiating suitable sites for transmission lines – or any facility – today.
But we cannot afford to continually ignore or put off finding a solution to our energy woes. Despite the cost, the political hurdles and certain effectiveness that are to be gained with the piecemeal implementation of today’s “smart grid” technology, there is no getting around the fact that America’s power grid system needs to be upgraded on national scale.
Just as America found a way to achieve President Dwight Eisenhower’s ambitious vision of an interstate highway system, we can and must now construct a national transmission superhighway if we are to get the most from renewables and bring our crumbling grid into the First World.