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Transmission Investment Times Five: Will the Grid be Secure?

Jessica Kennedy's picture
Energy Consultant Energy Curtailment Specialists

Jessica Kennedy has worked in the energy industry since 2008. She earned her bachelor's degree in English from the State University of New York at Geneseo. She earned her master's degree in...

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  • Sep 9, 2014

Transmission systems across the country are finally getting some much needed upgrades.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that investments in electricity transmission infrastructure have increased by a factor of five since 1997. This is promising because prior to the late nineties, grid infrastructure investments declined for three decades, and electric grid reliability deteriorated along with them.

Investment Transmission Graph

Source: US Energy Information Administration

The boom in transmission investment is necessary (and overdue) for several important reasons.  The EIA mentions the need to connect renewable resources to the grid, accommodate changes in electricity demand, and reform electricity markets as some motives for the increased investment.  But, at the top of the list of priorities is the need to improve reliability of the grid.

If a tree falls on a power line and no one hears it, it can black out half the country. 

Concern over electric grid stability has skyrocketed over the past decade.  It has been 11 years since the Northeast Blackout of 2003, and it is no coincidence that spending on infrastructure steadily increased after that year, as the graph from the EIA illustrates.  Perhaps that incident was the disaster utilities needed to turn serious attention to deteriorating transmission equipment.  In addition, that blackout alerted the country to the fact that the electric grid is seriously ill-equipped to handle the current needs of the nation, and it’s even less suited to accommodate future changes in demand and generation sources.

The importance of electric grid improvement goes beyond fixing reliability problems from the past.  Utilities finally seem to understand that transmission is so important they are pouring five times more money into maintenance and upgrades than they were 15 years ago.  Hopefully, that is a promising sign of things to come.  Are utilities anticipating a multitude of inevitable technological changes about to flood our electric grid?  Renewable resource integration, tightened security measures, and transactive energy are just some of the burgeoning technologies that will make reliable transmission crucial.  If the right amount of investment and upgrades are done now, utilities will no longer be playing “catch-up” to suit electricity demand and reliability.  That makes all these investments worthwhile, because a blackout such as the one in 2003 can cost the country billions of dollars.  Prevention is economically friendlier and safer.

Utilities have lagged behind technologically for far too long, and this has left the United States’ electric grid extremely vulnerable.  If something as mundane as powerlines touching tree branches can take out our electricity, how prepared are we for severe weather, cyber threats, or high demand?

Do you think these investments will make our transmission system strong enough to withstand threats to reliability?  


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