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California Needs Better Transmission

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Henry Craver's picture
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As a small business owner, I'm always trying to find ways to cut costs and boost the dependability of my services. To that end, I've become increasingly invested in learning about energy saving...

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  • Sep 7, 2021 10:45 am GMT
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Last Wednesday, Los Angeles’ City Council voted to transition to 100 percent clean energy by 2035, 10 years earlier than their previous target. The new goal, of course, falls in line with President Biden’s national target for carbon neutrality. It’s most likely only a matter of time before other blue counties in the state follow suit and propose similar clean energy goals—don’t be surprised if some localities are even more ambitious. Carbon cutting goals are all fine and good, but how can places like L.A. County, or more broadly the entire state of California, actually follow through without horribly compromising power reliability? Transmission must play a big role. 

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California’s power woes have been all over the headlines for the past few years. The problem is pretty simple: Hotter weather is driving up electricity demand all while wildfires knockout transmission lines or force operators to preemptively take them off line, and hydropower generation slumps because of drought. To mitigate these problems, California has invested big money in batteries to store the energy generated by the state’s abundant solar panels and has beefed up energy efficiency programs. They’ve also decided to put off closing some dirty power plants, much to the chagrin of many environmentalist groups. 

However, it doesn’t seem that California’s reliability efforts have been very successful. Heading into this summer, CAISO, the state’s grid operator, released an assessment that showed they were only negligibly better prepared for 2020-like events. The North American Electricity Reliability Corp. (NERC) came to a similar conclusion in its 2021 Summer Reliability Assessment. The report mentioned that even periods of normal peak demand would risk depleting the state’s energy resources. The assessment estimated that 10,185 MWh would go unmet in Summer 2021. 

How can California expect to solve its current issues while simultaneously completing its transition to renewables? Some commentators will claim better and cheaper batteries are the answer. Storage will undoubtedly get better and cheaper in the coming years, however it won’t be a silver bullet as early as 2035. No, to provide reliable electricity in an ever hotter and more electrified California, the state must build a more robust and extensive transmission network. 

This summer’s horrifying North West heatwave was testament to the importance of good transmission infrastructure. During the worst of the historic heatwave in the early summer, a great deal of utilities in the region failed to meet peak demand at times. One exception was Pacific Power, who had relatively few problems thanks in large part to PacifiCorp’s robust network of high-voltage transmission lines that spread across ten states. 

California should adopt a similar model as part of their plan to be carbon neutral by 2035. Luckily, a number of proposals are already under consideration. Perhaps most notable is the Southwest Intertie Project-North (SWIP-North). The project would connect hydro and wind generation from Wyoming, Idaho and Washington to Cali’s grid through a relatively low fire risk path. 

Transmission is not the answer to providing clean, reliable energy in the west. However, it’s a huge part of the answer. Now is the time to end our nation’s transmission stagnation and get to work developing a power infrastructure fit for the 21st century.

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John Simonelli's picture
John Simonelli on Sep 9, 2021

The industry in general has recognized the need for new transmission as well as upgrading aging facilities for the last 20 years. The problem is knowing you what you need to build and actually getting shovels in the ground are light years apart. The whole issue of who's paying for the transmission needs to be addressed, the engineering and design needs to happen, and then what has been universally recognized as the biggest problem is getting the necessary permitting and siting so that you can build it. Folks want to decarbonize, folks want to increase the utilization of renewables to supply energy, etc., but no one wants to build transmission anywhere near them. This country suffers from a massive dose of NIMBY and BANANA. Until the government steps in and is willing to flex its muscle, and in many cases that means the use of eminent domain, not much transmission is going to get built.

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