More than two weeks have passed since Hurricane Sandy brought the Eastern Seaboard to a standstill. Although life is slowly returning to normal, Sandy joins a long series of painful reminders of how dependent 21st century America is on reliable electricity: it powers nearly every facet of our lives. The potential silver lining in the wake of Sandy’s devastation is the influx of interest in our outdated and inadequate transmission grid, highlighting long ignored issues from the benefits of buried transmission lines to the importance of an integrated, redundant, resilient grid – built to withstand even Sandy’s fury.
A robust and modern electric grid is also essential for taking advantage of America’s unmatched renewable energy resources. Wind and sunlight cannot be delivered to customers from their best sources – mostly remote areas and offshore – using railcars and pipelines like coal, oil, and gas; they need transmission lines. In the Southeast, where wind and solar are relatively scarce, transmission lines are critical for bringing cheap and abundant renewable resources from other regions. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which provides power to nearly all of Tennessee and other Southeastern areas, is now importing wind power from eight wind farms in the Midwest. Alabama Power, a subsidiary of Atlanta-based Southern Company, last year made one of the largest wind purchases ever from producers in Oklahoma.
Several changes under way promise to accelerate the nascent interregional “trade” in cheap renewable energy. Dozens of outdated and inefficient coal plants across the Southeast will be shutting down over the next several years as new air pollution rules take effect; businesses and consumers are demanding more clean energy; and vehicle electrification is growing rapidly, especially in the Southeast. Nearly three percent of electric vehicles sold in the United States this year were registered in Tennessee. Not coincidentally, almost all of these were Nissan Leafs – soon to be manufactured at a plant in Smyrna. But electric vehicles are only as green as the power plants that charge them, and in the Southeast today, coal generates about half of the electricity. How the region invests in transmission will largely determine whether the power from retiring coal plants will be replaced by renewable resources.
A new planning framework unveiled last year by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Order 1000, asks utility transmission planners to work together to solve the transmission challenge across large regions by avoiding duplication and building only those upgrades needed to strengthen the grid, improve reliability, increase efficiency, and integrate large amounts of renewable energy.
Additionally, Swiss engineering firm ABB Group announced a technological breakthrough last week that could solve the problem of transmission losses over very long distances. ABB’s new circuit breaker for high-voltage DC lines – far more efficient than AC lines over long distances – will allow large amounts of renewable electricity to be delivered over thousands of miles, for instance, from Iowa to Tennessee.
Americans have always responded to crises by replacing what was lost with something better, stronger, and smarter: building an even stronger foundation for future growth and prosperity. Let’s not wait for the next Sandy to modernize our electric grid – our most important infrastructure investment for the future of the Southeast – and the nation.
Bill White is a Senior Vice President at David Gardiner & Associates, with more than fifteen years of managing public-private partnerships advancing action on energy and climate change. For more information on the current state of transmission planning and clean energy, what decisions lie ahead, and what to expect from leadership at every level of government and the private sector, tune in to the Southeast Clean Energy Transmission Summit webcast on November 14, from 10am-5:30pm EST (9am-4:30pm CST).