CAP’s Bracken Hendricks has a report out on the need to invest in and revitalize our national electricity transmission grid. There are a number of aspects to this problem, but perhaps the clearest and most compelling one from a progressive perspective is simply the fact that the current grid essentially locks us in to planet-destroying coal to power an enormous amount of the country. Why? Well, we don’t have any high-voltage transmission lines going into the part of the country where the best onshore wind resources are, and we have few lines going to where the best solar power sights are:
Although the United States has vast onshore wind resources — more than enough to supply 20 percent of the nation’s electricity demand by 2030, according to a recent Department of Energy study — the best of these wind resources are located primarily in remote regions of the country. These areas are generally located far from major centers of electricity demand and have little or no access to the “backbone” extra- high-voltage transmission lines that would be required in order to transmit power efficiently from these regions to major electricity markets.
A similar problem confronts solar power developers, who have identified sparsely populated areas of the desert Southwest as optimal locations for large-scale solar power stations. Absent major investments in extra-high-voltage transmission lines connecting these areas of the country to major markets, it is unlikely that the United States will be able to fully exploit these renewable energy resources at a scale that can significantly contribute to our national appetite for energy. The development of remote geothermal resources faces similar transmission constraints.
Of course the larger reason why the grid has this shape is simply that it’s very old. The United States was a world leader in terms of large-scale electrification, especially of rural areas. But what that means is that the technology underlying the system is antiquated, and doesn’t take advantage of modern digital technology to manage the electricity. On top of that, the system is, for historical reasons, an odd patchwork of state-level regulators. In practice, however, the grid is an interstate concern. And especially if we want to pipe renewable energy from where the resources are to where the people live, that needs to be done on an interstate basis.