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America’s Electrical Grid Has A Transmission Problem — How To Move Electricity From Here To There?

Providing electrical power when and where it is needed will be a challenge as the Earth’s climate changes. Are humans up to the task?

It’s the classic Smokey And The Bandit problem. How to get what you need here when most of it is located over there. In the movie, it was about beer: “They’re thirsty in Atlanta and there’s beer in Texarkana.” In America today, it’s about electricity. America has access to lots of renewable energy but it tends to be over the hills and very far away in places like Wyoming or Quebec. Where it’s needed is in the big cities and industrial centers. How to get the supply to where the demand exists is the problem.

There are two ways to go. Build lots and lots of microgrids that generate and distribute electricity locally or put up lots of new transmission lines to bring it from where it is to where it ain’t. One compromise solution is to make use of the grid connections that already exist at thermal generating plants but that will mean those facilities have to be decommissioned first. Ideally, you build some new transmission lines, create lots of microgrids, convert some traditional power plants to renewable energy hubs, and we all get clean renewable electricity to power their heat pumps, laptops, and hot tubs. Everybody’s happy.

Everybody is definitely not happy today, though. Texas, in its quest to tell the federal government to take their regulations and shove ’em, deliberately chose not to connect its electrical grid to those in surrounding states. No interstate connections meant no federal interference with Texas’ God given right to do stupid things if it wants to. In 2014, a plan emerged to build the Southern Cross transmission line to carry wind power from Texas to neighboring states in the Southeast. Had it been built, it could have been used to import power from those neighbors back into Texas last week. But the project was never completed, according to a report by the Financial Times.

The High Cost Of Low Prices

Renewable energy prices have dropped by 90% over the past decade. Yet many clean energy proposals mean higher costs for consumers. Naturally, utility customers want to know why their monthly bills are going up if the cost of electricity is going down. It’s a fair question. The answer, in a nutshell, is transmission. Getting that beer from Texarkana to Atlanta, or those electrons from Wyoming to San Francisco, costs money. The monthly statement  from EverSource, a utility company that serves much of Massachusetts and Connecticut, contains two prices — one the cost of electricity supplied and the other the cost of delivering that electricity to the subscriber. Often, the transmission cost is the greater of the two.

Perhaps you may be thinking, “Just build the new transmission lines and get that renewable energy flowing. We need to decarbonize the grid immediately if we are to tame global heating. How hard can it be?” The answer is, pretty darn hard.

Building Transmission Lines Is Not A Game For Sissies

Right now, the state of Maine is smack dab in the middle of this issue. “We know that this is just the very beginning of a very difficult transition that we’re going to have to make if we are going to electrify our heating and transportation sectors and if we’re going to bring on the kind of renewable resources that we’re going to need going forward,” Maine’s Public Utilities Chair Phil Bartlett tells Maine Public Radio.

Previously, Maine relied on thermal generation from coal, natural gas, and nuclear. “That is all changing,” Bartlettt says. “We are expecting more distributed resources on our distribution system. There’ll be batteries for storage increasingly added to the system. We also know that there will be significant increases in load as we put in more heat pumps and as folks transition to electric vehicles. And we need to make sure that the grid is ready for that. We need to really assess how the grid needs to be changed and how costs are going to be allocated for that to be sure that we are ready for the future that is coming at us very quickly.”

In 2018, Avangrid, a subsidiary of Spanish utility company Iberdrola, proposed plans for a new transmission line from Quebec, which has excess hydro power, to Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. According to the Financial Times, that plan won the support of the Conservation Law Foundation and the Union of Concerned Scientists. But the Sierra Club, the Appalachian Mountain Club, and the Natural Resources Council of Maine sued to block the line. Last month the court issued a stay that halts the cutting of trees along 53 miles of the proposed route. That seems a bit odd. If you know anything about Maine, you know its economy has depended for generations on clear cutting huge swaths of forest each year to supply pulp to its paper mills.

Other opponents include Next Era Energy, the Florida utility that is push solar power in the south but has a fossil fueled generating plant in Maine and a nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. Also joining the fight is Texas based Vistra, which operates 7 thermal generating plants in the area that would be served by the transmission line from Quebec.

Business is business, so they say, and although Next Era is crowing about its renewable energy policies in the South, it has no problem talking out of the other side of its mouth when it faces a decrease in profits in the North. The world may be on fire but is that any reason to curtail profits? There’s an existential question if there ever was one.

Microgrids & Smart Grids

The traditional model for distributing electricity is to build a thermal generating plant somewhere outside major population centers and then send that energy out over the grid to local homes and businesses. But many believe that hub and spoke model is obsolete in the era of renewable energy. Distributed renewables is the new hot concept for the grid architecture of the future.

For example, the island of Puerto Rico was crippled when Hurricane Maria demolished the transmission lines that brought electricity from the generating stations on the south side of the island to the population centers located in the north. Some experts suggest 5 or 6 microgrids located near those population centers would be enough to supply electricity to most of the island and would be able to survive major hurricanes like Maria. Battery storage is often a central component of any microgrid.

That may be true, but realistically, those microgrids would need to be networked together to ensure the kind of resilience against unforeseen disasters like wild fires, frigid temperatures, flooding, or winds from more powerful storms that will be needed to provide electrical power reliably at all times and under all conditions in the future.

Smart grids leverage the power of the internet to manage demand. Heating and air conditioning equipment, water heaters, EV chargers, electric stoves, and other devices that use significant amounts of electricity can be turned off or turned down to help make sure there is enough electricity available. A kilowatt-hour of electricity not used is a kilowatt-hour of electricity that never has to be generated.

For example, assume there are 10 EVs on a street or in a parking lot that need to be charged up in time for the morning commute. If all of them are plugged in at 8:00 PM and set to charge at full power, the utility company may have to upgrade the local grid with more powerful transformers. A peaker plant may have to be activated to meet the demand. But if those chargers can be managed remotely, total demand will remain the same but be spread out over the next 10 hours or so. In the morning, all 10 drivers will be ready to drive to work, but that peaker plant will remain unused and no expensive transformer upgrades will be necessary.

Anger Leads To Poor Decisions

If humans are going to inhabit the Earth for millennia to come, they will need to either adapt to new climate realities or develop effective measures to mitigate the effects of a warming environment. Since genetic adaptation takes hundreds if not thousands of years while the worst effects of a warmer planet are happening now, relying on adaptation of our species is unlikely to be effective. That leaves decarbonizing human activities as the only sensible path forward.

Should we build more long distance transmission lines or should we prioritize microgrids? The question is like asking the football head coach whether offense or defense is more important. Championship teams have both. We have seen this week the highest ranking political leaders in Texas taking to the airwaves to blame its current electrical grid woes on Democrats, conveniently ignoring that Texas has been governed exclusively by Republicans for generations. Suggesting that its recent troubles are the fault of flesh eating pedophiles hardly seems like a well reasoned response to the crisis.

If we as a civilization are to meet the challenges presented by new climate realities, we will need to cool the anger, stop shouting and pointing fingers at each other, and start working together. For our political leaders, it will mean relearning what it means to govern. Or as Rodney King would say, “Can’t we all just get along?” The means to meet the climate emergency are within our grasp if we listen to each other.

An old expression says, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” We only have a limited amount of time to figure out how to keep the Earth habitable for humans (the cockroaches will survive no matter what). Screaming at each other is a recipe for disaster and yet that seems to be what many Americans prefer. If that attitude persists, the slide into climate chaos will soon pass the point of no return.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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