Forget Wind Turbines, Or Solar Panels, We Need To Fund New Power Lines

utilities smart grid electricity

Lost in the talk of the climate bill, stimulus spending on electric cars, and renewable energy, is the fact that our transmission system is decrepit. Unless we fix that glaring problem, bringing any of the aforementioned projects to life is going to be almost impossible, Bloomberg reports.

Efforts to transform and rebuild our transmission system in the United States are woefully underfunded. Obama only dedicated $6 billion to upgrading the system in the stimulus package. That’s a minuscule amount, considering that the Energy Department and power companies say $130 billion is needed. It’s also less than half what our energy rival China is dedicating to building new lines of power.

Without these improved lines, the big clean energy objectives of the administration aren’t feasible. Wind power and solar power need stronger transmission lines as well as more stations to direct them. Here’s an example of failed alternative energy stemming from a weak grid, via Bloomberg:

The consequences of failing to improve the grid played out last year in Texas, the biggest U.S. generator of wind power with 7,907 megawatts, enough to supply about 6.3 million homes. When winds died in February 2008, utilities had to cut power to factories and offices as output dropped 82 per cent.

Texas’s transmission network is mostly independent of the nation’s. Without added power lines, operators were unable to draw enough replacement electricity to keep businesses supplied.

It’s not entirely clear that the U.S. government needs to foot this bill. There’s other ways for the government to change the process. T. Boone Pickens who had his wind farm plans scaled back says we just need to federal government to assert authority over states for siting power lines. States have more authority over power lines right now, but if the federal government stepped in, and changed that, it could cause a boom for private developers.

Also, let’s not forget electricity production is a profitable enterprise. Utilities and other power producers should be paying for this, which seems to be the thinking of the administration:

The administration is counting on private utilities and transmission developers to complement its investment, according to Wellinghoff. Yet a full refit of the U.S. grid would cost $13 billion annually over 10 years, compared with the $5 billion a year averaged over the last decade, said Rich Lordan of the Electric Power Research Institute, an industry-funded energy research organisation in Palo Alto, California.

If utilities are forced to pay for new lines, then consumer bills rise, and politicians get blamed. So we could get caught in a game of chicken to see who’s willing to fund new power lines.

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