Transmission and High Temperatures
- Jul 7, 2021 4:48 pm GMT
This summer has given us more reason to believe that extreme summer temperatures are the new normal. Since June, a historic heatwave has blasted down on the North West. The weather event seems far from over, and yet hundreds have already died. Weather events like this will continue to kill people moving forward, however an updated grid could mitigate a great deal of tragedy.
The events of last week in the American North West highlight some areas in need of improvement.
Portland General Electric (PGE) predicted trying conditions and planned accordingly, setting up extra cooling systems to prevent infrastructure from overheating and keeping extra crews on standby in case of emergencies. Despite the precautions, PGE customers still suffered blackouts due to equipment failures. The utility, however, was able to meet peak demand.
Avista, a utility that powers parts of eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and southern and eastern Oregon, faired even worse. The company issued unplanned outages on Monday due to high demand and expreme heat. On tuesday, they rolled out planned outages and urged customers to conserve energy almost all afternoon and into the evening.
Pacific Power, on the other hand, had relatively few problems. The PacifiCorp’s success has been credited to its access to a robust network of high-voltage transmission lines that spread across ten states.
Judging from Pacific Power’s performance, it would seem most utilities would benefit from more transmission infrastructure. This isn’t new information, obviously, but it seems the need becomes more urgent every summer. Soaring seasonal temperatures are driving up demand just as many states accelerate their adoption of renewables in a bid to hit ambitious carbon cutting goals. The renewables, however, are not scalable and many of the generation sites lie far away from the urban centers that need most power. If we’re going to continue on with this solar and wind experiment, we’ll have to connect the producers to the consumers with transmission lines.
Of course, as evidenced this summer, we don’t just need more transmission lines, we need more resilient lines too. During extreme heat waves, power lines sag and become less capable. Maybe it’s time to swap in our 20th century northern U.S. lines for the kind I’m sure Phoenix has had for a long time.
Unfortunately, just because power professionals and legislators agree that a rapid transmission buildup is important, that doesn’t mean it’ll happen. As I’ve mentioned before on this forum, inefficient regulation is one of the biggest hindrances to transmission projects today. A 2018 report by the nonprofit Americans for a Clean Energy Grid identified 22 shovel-ready projects that had been in existence for a decade or more. To get such projects off the ground, the report’s authors suggested streamlining project siting and permitting, passing a tax credit for transmission projects, and direct investment by the federal government.
There are reasons to be optimistic we’ll see at least some of the necessary changes to accelerate transmission infrastructure projects. Namely, there’s recently been bi-partisian consensus on the need for power lines. The big $579 billion infrastructure plan stipulates $73 billion for power infrastructure. The fact sheet released by the White House also mentions the creation of a Grid Authority to oversee power projects. Maybe such an agency would prove an effective advocate for regulation reform.
However, as it stands now, there are long, and sometimes nonsensical, waiting lines to get projects off the ground. Take the SOO Green project, for example. The proposed transmission line is supposed to transport much needed renewable energy from Iowa to the Chicago area, 2,100 MW of wind power to be exact. But the project is stuck on an interconnection queue that exists to make sure there’s enough transmission to take on new generation. But this is a transmission project…
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