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Transmission Project Roadblocks Thwart Clean Energy Progress

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Karen Marcus's picture
Freelance Energy and Technology Researcher and Writer Final Draft Communications, LLC

In addition to serving as an Energy Central Community Manager, Karen Marcus has 25 years of experience as a content developer within the energy and technology industries. She has worked with...

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  • Aug 13, 2020
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Transmission is critical for sending energy from point A to point B. And transmission infrastructure is critical for making it happen. But, like so many other aspects of the U.S. electrical grid, transmission infrastructure is in need of an update.

Specifically, greater interconnectivity between regions is needed to reduce the intermittent nature of renewable resources that is present within the current regional structure. A recent ScottMadden study report, titled “Informing the Transmission Discussion,” states, “The challenge of these issues…is the desire for a ‘universal solvent’ that will remedy transmission infrastructure gaps across the nation; however, many of these issues are inherently regional.”

Unfortunately, this factor and others are preventing an update from happening on a scale needed to support grid advancements and new technologies.

Interstate Coordination

The regional versus interregional problem is complex. According to a recent Brookings report, titled “Renewables, Land Use, and Local Opposition in the United States,” eminent domain for transmission lines lies with states. To initiate an interstate transmission project, a developer would likely have to get approvals from multiple states.

While some might be amenable, others would resist on the basis of how much value such a project would bring to that state. If a transmission project isn’t actually providing power to people in that state, but merely carrying it across, there is little justification for granting approval.

Public Acceptance

Landowners may also be reluctant to resist transmission projects that don’t directly benefit them. The Brookings report states, “This opposition is understandable, but transmission lines such as this one will be necessary to maximize the amount of renewable power used in the United States.”

Investment

Another factor is a lack of investment in transmission infrastructure projects. Yet, resolution of this factor isn’t straightforward either. The World Economic Forum states, “An inadequate transmission and distribution network leads to constant congestion and curtailment issues, which affect the economic viability of projects.” Such issues make investors “reluctant to build clean power plants” and lenders “unwilling to finance projects that could be riddled with such risks.”

Further, the Brookings report states, “Without adequate and accessible transmission capacity, renewable projects are less likely to be economically viable, but investments in renewable energy are needed to justify construction of new transmission.” This chicken-and-egg dilemma has driven transmission project development down in the last five years and is expected to drive spending down as well.

Despite the challenges, a number of transmission projects are still moving ahead, including the 1,150-mile Gateway West project, the TransWest Express, and the Grain Belt Express. According to the Brookings report, the best solution for making implementing more such projects is to develop renewables on low-conflict land, like brownfields. However, this approach isn’t a panacea. Finding win-win renewable scenarios, such as compensating farmers for use of their land to place solar panels, is another tactic. But, ultimately, the best method for moving forward with new transmission projects is gaining public favor by addressing the concerns of residents in proposed project locations.

What are your thoughts on transmission project development? Please share in the comments.

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