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Renewables and power lines go head to head

image credit: Photo 24650084 / Energy © Huating |
Henry Craver's picture
Small Business Owner , Self-employed

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...

  • Member since 2018
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  • May 2, 2022

The United States really needs new power lines. While booming natural gas and renewable sectors over the past decade have meant cheaper electricity than ever, at least before the war in Ukraine, lackluster power infrastructure has actually driven electric bills. Basically, as it stands, it’s too hard to get energy from where it’s produced to where it’s consumed. 

Just how bad is our transmission system’s stagnation. Consider this fact highlighted in an Atlantic article last year: “Since 2009, China has built more than 18,000 miles of ultrahigh-voltage transmission lines. The U.S. has built zero.” 

The paradox facing the power industry is that the same trend driving the need for more transmission projects makes it harder to get them approved. 

Renewable energy, at least in the context of North America, requires extensive power lines. There are two reasons for this: Renewable rich areas are often inconveniently far from the big metro areas that need the most energy. And the intrinsic scalability problems associated with renewables make sharing energy across systems all the more important.

However, renewables make it harder to get transmission projects off the ground because they compete for the same thing: The public’s bandwidth for ugly, big land use projects. NIBMYSM, agriculture concerns, and ecological concerns all stand in the way. 

This conflict of interests is evident in a few pieces of power industry news that have come out in the past year. 

In California, tortoise deaths and other environmental concerns have led to a push back against plans for more panels in the future: 

"It's really about location. Our organization has never been against solar power. We just believe there are better locations. ...We see these old-growth trees as very important for wildlife and also as carbon sequestering. They hold a lot of carbon, and we think it's a really bad idea to put solar panels on important habitat like that." said Kevin Emmerich of Basin and Range Watch in an article for the Desert Sun. 

In the midwest, solar projects are the root of great controversy. Advocates highlight the cheap electricity, while those in opposition bemoan the projects’ use of potential farming land and their negative effects on housing prices. Such misgivings led Iowa legislators to introduce a bill this year that would have prohibited solar farms from being placed on land that’s considered good for farming. Nearly two-thirds of Iowa counties qualified. 

Meanwhile, pretty much the same forces keep transmission projects from breaking tape. Take the Grain Belt line, for example. The transmission line, which would span nearly 800 miles across four midwest states, from Kansas to Indiana, connecting into the PJM Interconnection LLC grid, is at risk of being thwarted by House Bill 2005. The bill, brainchild of big ag groups across the region, would give any county in the line’s path the right to block construction. 

Do Americans have the appetite for both renewable farms and transmission lines? It seems not. Is it possible to sway public opinion on the matter, or do we need an entirely different energy strategy for the 21st century?


Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 2, 2022

I would have thought that transmission lines would be an obvious area of investment that could be touted for the clean energy advocates, for the job creation advocates, and more. But of course with U.S. politics, nothing is easy..

Christopher Neely's picture
Christopher Neely on May 4, 2022

Initially, I would say that look at New York's pair of recent transmission projects that aim to build more than 500 miles of high-voltage transmission lines, yet, that project is contained within state borders and Canada. The problem of interstate transmission is going to be more difficult to figure out. It's a sad reality that, in America, a relative few landowners could thwart critical infrastructure. Perhaps we need to turn to the nefarious lessons of Robert Moses, who was able to build his highways straight through the properties of railroad barons in the mid-20th century.

Henry Craver's picture
Thank Henry for the Post!
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