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The U.S. has a transmission problem, will a new administration fix it?

image credit: Courtesy Americans for a Clean Energy Grid
Christopher Neely's picture
Independent, Local News Organization

Journalist for nearly a decade with keen interest in local energy policies for cities and national efforts to facilitate a renewable revolution. 

  • Member since 2017
  • 755 items added with 372,351 views
  • Dec 7, 2020

Outdated infrastructure has been a central story in the United States as it attempts to bridge the gaps between its energy ideals and the contemporary reality. Old transmission lines have been linked to fires and outages in California, as well as cited as a major barrier to grid modernization for a renewable age.

How far behind is the U.S.? Well, in a new report from Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, not just the U.S., but the entire North American continent appears to lag significantly behind other regions in the world in developing interregional transmission lines. Mind you, the Americans for a Clean Energy Grid are a group of industry stakeholders that include players in the renewable energy industry—and industry that desperately desires updated transmission lines. However, the numbers speak for themselves.

Since 2014, China has absolutely dominated the interregional electricity transmission industry,  adding 260 GW of interregional transmission capacity across its nation. That’s nearly 7-times as much capacity Europe has added over the same period. The richest collection of nations in the world has only added 44 GW of interregional transmission capacity. That’s still double that of South America, which has added 22 GW, while India has added 12 GW.

North America sits toward the bottom of this list, adding only 7 GW of interregional capacity over the 7 year span. How the U.S. has essentially stalled out on interregional transmission could be owed to the massive regulatory hurdles, with its patchwork quilt of publicly-owned utilities, private grids and federally-owned electricity grids.

However, the U.S. is also ripe with opportunity. The giant and diverse land mass sits under one federal government, has a diverse geography perfect for a mix of wind and solar power and sits across 4 time zones. The time zone piece is actually interesting—it means if the U.S. can built interregional transmission across the country, the west coast could benefit from the east coast’s nightly wind power while the west coast can send over solar power while it’s dark out in the east.

With a new administration coming in that has publicly endorsed the Green New Deal and ambitious climate goals, replenishing the country’s outdated transmission lines could be a good place to start. Building coalitions to implement massive interregional transmission projects would as well. It may not be as sexy as solar panels and wind turbines, but addressing the country’s aging transmission infrastructure is an unavoidable requirement in achieving a renewable and clean power-reliant future. The infrastructure aspect of this endeavor not only sets the stage for grid modernization, but offers immediate jobs to an aching economy as well.

Ansh Nasta's picture
Ansh Nasta on Dec 10, 2020

We really need more East-West transmission!

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 18, 2020

Christopher, the problem isn't that U.S. infrastructure is outdated "far behind". The problem is twofold: the U.S. isn't China, and renewable energy isn't dispatchable.

Utilities in one state often aren't capable of supplying customers with a reliable supply of renewable electricity. But why would making states dependent on other states, with conflicting environmental policies (and often industries in direct competition with each other), offer any kind of solution? If Southern California is covered with clouds, why would CA electricity customers want to pay sky-high prices for solar electricity from Arizona?

That's a contemporary reality for your "renewable age", and it will never change.

"Mind you, the Americans for a Clean Energy Grid are a group of industry stakeholders that include players in the renewable energy industry."

Obviously. And just as obvious is that the "Americans for a Clean Energy Grid" are more interested in selling solar panels and wind turbines than providing a reliable grid - or even one powered by clean energy.

"However, the U.S. is also ripe with opportunity."

Opportunity, or fraud?

Christopher Neely's picture
Thank Christopher for the Post!
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