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Not-So-Green Superhighway

Unforeseen consequences of dedicated renewable energy transmission.

Fortnightly Magazine - February 2012

transmit RE electricity to the load centers, and made assumptions as to what RE electricity will be transmitted to which load centers. While some RE plants can serve load centers in Southern California, Phoenix, Denver, Salt Lake City, etc., most of the RE electricity produced will have to be transmitted to load centers east of the Mississippi. Thus, major new transmission lines will be required from the Southwest and northern Great Plains states to load centers in the Midwest and the East. Most of these lines don’t currently exist, and much new transmission will have to be built over the next decade to transmit renewable energy (see Figure 1) .

The distances involved are significant; for example:

• 700 to 1,000 miles from the northern Great Plains to the Midwestern load centers;

• 1,200 to 1,500 miles from the northern Great Plains to the load centers in the Boston-Washington corridor;

• 1,000 to 1,300 miles from the northern Great Plains to the West Coast load centers;

• 1,100 to 1,400 miles from the Southwest to the Midwestern load centers;

• 1,600 to 2,000 miles from the Southwest to load centers in the Boston-Washington corridor; and

• 1,600 to 1,900 miles from Iowa to the West Coast load centers.

It’s difficult to estimate precisely how much additional transmission a mandated RES would require. Nevertheless, given the distances between RE generation sites and major load centers, the new transmission required to enable an RES could total 10,000 to 20,000 miles of lines. To put this in perspective, NERC estimates that planned transmission additions in the U.S. will total about 20,000 miles through 2019. 3 Thus, the transmission lines required by an RES could nearly double transmission requirements over the next decade.

There are two major problems associated with the required new lines. First, they will have to cross numerous states to reach the load centers. Permitting would require approval of the states, local authorities, and impacted landowners, who have often thwarted transmission expansion in the past. To avoid delays, the federal government would need authority to mandate routes and to declare eminent domain. While FERC has some authority, it isn’t clear how long challenges to federal preemption might last, slowing final route approvals and transmission construction. Granting this kind of federal preemption likely will cause substantial political controversy, the duration of which isn’t predictable.

Second, investors won’t commit funds to install RE without the assurance that the necessary transmission lines will be available, and federal exercise of eminent domain ahead of RE facility construction might prove to be essential.

Coincident with the construction of the transmission and RE plants must be the addition of backup power supplies, 4 firm demand-response capacity, or both. If those resource additions are delayed, then the RE power generated might have difficulty accessing markets, because large quantities of widely varying electric power from wind and solar facilities might exceed the ability of existing power grids to accommodate.

The costs of backup power resources, as well as the new transmission capacity, ultimately will be charged to power consumers. The capacity