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Renewables to slow transmission development

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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
  • 692 items added with 330,214 views
  • Dec 28, 2021

The United States of America desperately needs more transmission lines. Over the past two decades, as energy needs have continued to rise, power line development has slowed to a lethargic crawl. “Since 2009, China has built more than 18,000 miles of ultrahigh-voltage transmission lines. The U.S. has built zero,” an Atlantic article pointed out this year. Luckily, momentum seems to be building for a significant transmission build out. Once seldom discussed, the importance of transmission is now a common theme in mainstream publications, and both Republican and Democrat legislators have been enthusiastic about transmission development. 

However, one thing still stands in the way of transmission: NIMBYISM. Despite an emerging popular understanding about transmission’s importance to cutting emissions and boosting reliability, people still don’t want to see the things in their backyards when push comes to shove. 

Take the case of the New England Clean Energy Connect line, for example. In November, the project, that would transport hydropower from Quebec to the Massachusetts grid, was halted by a group of 50 Maine leglistors, representing the 59% of Maine voters who voted no on a ballot initiative earlier this month. The five involved utilities spent a combined $96.3 million to sway those voters. According to the letter from the Maine lawmakers to Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, they’re open to other, better positioned power lines. 

Unfortunately, new wind and solar farms are only going to compound this issue. The new energy sources require massive amounts of land and are sure to annoy the same kinds of people who rally against transmission projects. Here’s how a big solar and wind build out would change our landscape according to a recent article in bloomberg: 

“Achieving Biden’s goal will require aggressively building more wind and solar farms, in many cases combined with giant batteries. To fulfill his vision of an emission-free grid by 2035, the U.S. needs to increase its carbon-free capacity by at least 150%. Expanding wind and solar by 10% annually until 2030 would require a chunk of land equal to the state of South Dakota, according to Princeton University estimates and an analysis by Bloomberg News. By 2050, when Biden wants the entire economy to be carbon free, the U.S. would need up to four additional South Dakotas to develop enough clean power to run all the electric vehicles, factories and more.”

There’s already opposition sprouting up against big renewable projects for concerns over land use. Various solar projects on BLM land in California have attracted the ire of environmental groups, yes the same groups that lament the ways we’re changing the climate by burning fossil fuels.  

"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. 

We like solar so long as we don’t have to look at it. Sound familiar? 

How does this relate to transmission development? Wind, solar and transmission all require land. Land that people are loath to give up. People have a very limited bandwidth for these eyesores, and that bandwidth now looks like it will be split three ways. 

I’d love to hear what the community thinks about this. Am I right in thinking there could be a public backlash against visible new utility infrastructure that would make transmission lines even harder to put up?


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 28, 2021

"Am I right in thinking there could be a public backlash against visible new utility infrastructure that would make transmission lines even harder to put up?"

Henry, there has been public backlash against the obscene land use of renewable energy  for over half a century. It's grown because renewable energy has grown, and because renewable energy is inherently diffuse - it requires a lot of land to gather a little bit of energy - the dispute is irreconcilable.

No one disputes that generating electricity at centralized plants, from which transmission is distributed radially outwards, is the most efficient, least visually-intrusive way to deliver electricity to the greatest number of customers. But renewables advocates somehow feel, in their sense of entitlement, that they should be allowed to thrust the impacts of their designer electricity on the natural environment of others. The only question is how long we will continue to indulge them, because we're running out of time.

Peter Farley's picture
Peter Farley on Dec 31, 2021

Tired old tropes with no evidence to support it. In Germany and Australia rooftop solar is delivered for less than the cost of transmission and distribution. Nuclear power advocates seem to think they can lock up 1,000's of acres forever in old abandoned power plants and use more water than the entire household consumption of the US to cool their plants and charge their customers double the rate from wind and solar for some mythical claim that they use less land and are "more reliable".

You are right we are running out of time. If Australia with a much smaller skilled share of the workforce than the US can install 3 GW/y of rooftop solar, why can't the US get off its backside and install 60 GW, instead of letting utilities and Nimby's decide what you can put on your roof. 

Wind and solar take up trivial amounts of space. Plant Vogtle is 5 square km not including its share of uranium mines and the Hartford fuel processing centre. When all 4 reactors are operating it will produce about 35 TWh per year. 99% availability will be about 3.6 GW. Peak 4.5GW. 

20,000 5 MW wind turbines spread across farmland and deserts require about the same amount of land because the rest will continue as farming, grazing land, desert, ocean or whatever. The 20,000  wind turbines will produce 350 TWh or 10 times as much energy. Alternatively you can put 15,000 wind turbines and put three ESS iron batteries at each one taking up the same area, guaranteeing 99% availability of at least 13 GW and peak output of 52 GW.

Absolutely no contest wind and solar leave nuclear for dead in land use, water use, speed of erection and cost

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Jan 3, 2022

Reducto absurdo.

Peter Farley's picture
Peter Farley on Jan 1, 2022

While the US does need some more transmission, non wires alternatives such as energy efficiency, colocation of renewables and virtual transmission will mean that new transmission requirements are fairly small in the overall scheme of things. There is already 200,000 miles of HV transmission lines and perhaps 10,000 miles of new lines might be needed.

France is a far more electrified society than the US, to keep its nuclear reactors going at night it subsidises inefficient electric radiant heaters, most of its rail network is electrified and its hottest cities are as hot as most cities in Texas and the industrial share of its economy and GDP per capita at PPP are about the same as the US. Yet France uses 8 MWh/person/y and the US 12 MWh. So the first thing for the US to do is to focus on energy efficiency. 

Then the NREL did a study some years ago that showed 30% or 1,200 TWh of US electricity use could come from 14% of US roofs fitted with 16% efficient solar panels. With 21% efficient panels available now and extending rooftop solar to carpark and rail platform canopies, west facing facades of tall buildings old landfills, gravel pits, highway interchanges etc local solar could easily deliver 2,000-2,500 TWh per year in the US. Existing nuclear, hydro and other renewables are also supplying 1,500 TWh per year. Thus the combination of energy efficiency, existing low carbon and local solar would more than cover existing US demand for electricity with no new transmission. 

There are still plenty of areas on the grid with spare transmission capacity. Average hydro utilisation is 40%. Floating solar or co-located wind near hydro plants would approximately double transmission utilisation which would allow another 250 TWh onto the grid. 80 GW of offshore wind brought ashore near retired thermal plants and their associated infrastructure will bring another 250-300 TWh into the system.

Then there is the concept of virtual transmission where storage can be located at either or both ends of existing transmission. It can be pumped hydro or batteries at the transmission end or thermal storage/ice or batteries at the load end so an existing transmission line to  a low use coal, gas wind or solar farm can run at 2-3 times its existing load.

Finaly focusing on generation duration from renewables. With solar i.e bifacial east west or tracking panels with oversized DC to AC ratios and wind with taller towers greater turbine spacing and larger rotors can mean 10-20% more annual output from the same transmission capacity. Then you can build a solar farm to utilise an existing wind substation or vice versa. That might not perfectly optimise wind or solar output but it minimises the system cost of generation/transmission/storage     

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Jan 3, 2022

Completely out of touch with practical reality and typical of the green energy religion that has no problem conning folks with visions of an impossible utopia.

Julian Silk's picture
Julian Silk on Jan 3, 2022

Dear Folks,


I will not engage with Peter Farley if it can be avoided, but I think the blanket assertion he is implying that solar is less than transmission and produces less greenhouse gases is not always true.  What would seem to be relevant for the discussion here is the possibility that transmission could be put underground, and so remove the visual objection.  You might put the transmission lines near or coincident with highways, at greater length than straight lines, but in a way that would be easier to get to.  This might save the New England Clean Energy Connect line that Henry Craver mentions and might be more efficient for both renewable and transmission development considered together.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Jan 3, 2022

More accurately, renewable energy needs more transmission lines because of the resources inherent limitations: requires a lot of land and is not located anywhere close to load centers. The traditional grid with centralized and concentrated energy resources does not need more transmission lines.


Henry Craver's picture
Thank Henry for the Post!
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