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Are New Transmission Projects Contributing to Clean Energy?

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More and more transmission projects are popping up across the nation.  So much so that the the High Voltage Cables Market is predicted to grow.  This growth is attributed to the growing offshore wind farms, high voltage direct current links, and grid interconnections. So, thanks to renewables, T&D will prosper despite the pandemic.  Not all are excited about the growing number of projects and have questioned just how green the grid truly is.  Are lines carrying renewable energy contributing to clean energy?  Are new transmission projects worth the investment? The U.S. power grid is made up of over 7,300 power plants, nearly 160,000 miles of high-voltage power lines, and millions of miles of low-voltage power lines and distribution transformers, connecting 145 million customers throughout the country (EIA, 2016).  Some of the fastest growing sources of electricity are from renewable resources (e.g. wind, solar, etc).

Transmission developers have proposed numerous high voltage transmission projects in the United States to integrate renewable energy resources onto the grid and connect them to regions with high electricity demand.  In May, Gov. Cuomo spoke about the proposed Champlain Hudson Power project and said, “Let's build the cross-state transmission lines to develop that renewable market upstate and satisfy the need downstate. We know they have low-cost hydropower in Canada. Let's run the cable, the transmission lines from Canada to New York City, to get that power down here,” he said, adding “Let's stop talking and let's start doing. Let's invigorate this whole renewable market.”

On the opposite coast, Los Angeles is comparing the costs of adding transmission to bring renewable power into the city, versus promoting more distributed solar generation within the city.  To promote transmission of wind and solar power from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River, the American Council on Renewable Energy and Americans for a Clean Energy Grid have launched the Macro Grid initiative.  The initiative aims to improve the country’s transmission system and integrate low-cost renewable energy.

The federal government has designated about 6,000 miles of “energy corridors” in the West, including 4,000 miles of highway and pipeline rights-of-way.  The FERC report entitled Barriers and Opportunities for High Voltage Transmission, highlights the proposed TransWest Express transmission project, which would “maximize the use of existing and designated transmission corridors” to deliver wind energy generated in southern Wyoming to consumers in Arizona, Nevada, and southern California.  Similar projects proposed in the Western Interconnection region, 11 U.S. states, parts of Canada and Mexico, have failed.   Stakeholder interviews by the Western Governors Association showed that utilities were “reluctant to invest in long lead-time and capital-intensive projects.”

Money isn't the only obstacle.  Getting approval for such extensive plans creates a challenge as well.  Using highways or transportation corridors requires approval from each individual state the line would pass through. “The (FERC) report begins an important national discussion about making much greater use of highway and rail corridors as a way around some of the well-known barriers to transmission,” said Rob Gramlich, executive director of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid. Other safety and security concerns range from transmission tower failure to “a more desirable terrorist target.” The report revealed what other states have done to promote co-location or the installation of power lines along established rail lines, pipelines or highways. Some states have enacted laws and policies to promote the co-location of transmission in transportation corridors. Maine, for example, passed a law in 2010 designating energy corridors for the development of transmission and other energy infrastructure along specific highway and pipeline rights-of-way.  In 2016, New Hampshire passed a law designating energy corridors along, within, and under specific highway rights-of-way for the underground co-location of transmission and other energy infrastructure.  Can carrying clean energy make the grid green?  Or do costs, transmission loss and emissions outweigh the good of bringing renewable energy to areas with high demand?  

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