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Ned Farquhar’s Blog

Transmission - Don't Play With Electricity!

Ned Farquhar

Posted March 4, 2009

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“Careful there.  You’re going to ELECTROCUTE yourself!”  That’s my mother, when I was about five, six, seven, eight, even nine.

I was playing with electricity.  That’s what advocates of giant high-voltage transmission systems might be doing as well. 

David Morris makes the point on Grist and Alternet: building transmission can create significant issues.  Maybe it’s Pandora’s Grid.

We all love renewables, but we want clean energy, not renewables blended down with climate-changing conventional coal.  In the East, as indicated by the Piedmont Environmental Council, energy efficiency could eliminate the need for new lines by reducing demand for coal power and opening up capacity for renewables. And PEC makes a good case that transmission proponents are greenwashing projects that in 2005-06 were needed for coal by saying today the lines are needed for renewables. 

Here in the West, it’s similar.  There are huge 1000-mile-plus renewable transmission proposals out there that proponents say will also need 50% fossil energy (half of it high-emitting conventional coal) in the preferred economic analysis. 

California shut the door on huge proposals to ship coal in wind’s clothing by adopting a greenhouse gas performance standard in 2006 .  Other states, not as concerned about global warming, might not be ready to take such an aggressive step.  So, in addition to considering regional and national GHG performance standard options until we have strong cap and trade policy, we need other protections that prevent climate-changing conventional coal from expanding into new markets, potentially allowing big coal plants to run nearer full-capacity and sharply increasing the carbon impact of electric generation and use.  (Notably, GHG performance standards can’t prevent electrons from going where they want, but it can control the sales and contracts affecting transmission capacity and timing.) Such protections would include:

  1. Strong state, national, and regional commitments to energy efficiency.  By reducing demand, we release existing transmission capacity and demand for conventional coal generation.
  2. Local renewables.  Local renewables generation increases self-sufficiency, reduces transmission needs, creates local jobs,  and can help make the grid more resilient.  Not every place can do it, but lots of large load centers are near great sources of renewables.
  3. Transmission planning.  Shipping renewables from rich hinterland renewable energy zones to load centers is a great idea – but it isn’t the only idea.  Transmission plans should plan for reduction of carbon emissions, particularly as electric cars come on line.  Planning grid additions for long-distance transfer of wind energy that is economical only with cheap conventional coal would be a mistake.  Transmission planning needs a set of goals or we shouldn’t even bother.
  4. Transmission efficiency.  This means using existing corridors and lines more efficiently – removing bottlenecks, upgrading wires and connections, adding “smart grid” features that increase grid capacity and flexibility. 
  5. Sequenced and strategic growth.  Giant high-voltage direct current transmission lines might make sense in a few cases; gradual, staged extension into new wind, solar, and geothermal areas will be more affordable and less damaging (to lands and climate) in many others.  We shouldn’t start from the assumption that supersize fits all.  

Congress and federal agencies are thinking about transmission.  President Obama’s recovery package includes new investment in the grid, and his Administration is more committed on climate and renewables than seemed possible just a few months ago.  The energy bills coming forward soon could well contain transmission language.  Transmission policy is no longer the exclusive province of utilities and regulatory commissions – it’s time for conservationists to get involved in the national transmissio agenda.

We’d best prepare for a substantive, thorough transmission dialogue.  Transmission isn’t just a local concern.  It must be sensitively sized and sited, and it can be the throughway for clean energy, a partner for energy efficiency, a gate closed to wider markets for high-emitting resources, and a way to help our nation off oil and onto electricity for much of our transportation. 

Let’s not play with electricity – or transmission.  This nation should improve the grid, make it smarter, and clean up its electricity supply. Transmission plays a central role.  Doing it right is a huge task; doing it wrong, on the other hand, could be fast and easy.

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