Transmission is an underrated issue in energy policy.
The process for locating and permitting new wires was established way back in 1935, when most power plants were situated close to the people who used the electricity. That process works okay for building a natural-gas turbine near town. Its not as useful for transporting wind power from large, remote farms out in North Dakota to cities in California. Right now, building big new transmission lines is an enormous hassle. One 90-mile line from West Virginia to Virginia, the council report notes, took American Electric Power 13 years to site. Is that fixable?
By and large, the hurdles arent technological. Theyre political. Dozens of agencies are typically involved in the permitting process. There are state authorities, plus hordes of independent grid-owners, plus landowners who would need to allow new transmission lines through their property, plus environmentalists worried that tramping new lines through places like the Mojave Desert will wreak havoc on endangered habitats. Whats more, many state governments arent thrilled with spending money on grid upgrades that would primarily benefit wind farms in neighboring states.
Technically, theres a way to streamline this process. The 2005 energy bill gave the Department of Energy legal authority to approve large new transmission projects if states wouldnt cooperate with one another. The jobs council report recommends the government use this authority. But thats not so simple. Under George W. Bush, the department identified two grid areas one in the Mid-Atlantic and one in the Southwest as national priorities. But those areas spanned 10 states and 220 congressional districts. Fourteen senators from both parties including Joe Biden! quickly fired off a letter warning that the federal government was acting too aggressively.
Thats why a growing number of people who work in the industry are now questioning whether massive, centralized clean-energy projects really are the future. What good are huge solar farms in the desert if you cant get them wired? Perhaps smaller, distributed sources of clean energy rooftop solar panels, say, or small turbines that dont need fancy new transmission lines are a more promising option.
Its long been conventional wisdom that its much easier and cheaper to build those big plants, Allan Schurr, vice president of strategy and development at IBMs energy and utilities group, told me. But, when we interviewed customers, we found a strong appetite for individuals having control over their own energy future. As an alternate model, Schurr points to Germany, where well-crafted incentives for rooftop panels have transformed the cloudy nation into a solar leader. And theres a lot of untapped potential here: the National Renewable Energy Lab has estimated that we have 661,000 megawatts of rooftop-solar resources here in the United States.
Does that seem difficult to imagine? Perhaps. Then again, every few months a new report comes out lamenting our need for big new transmission lines, and the political hurdles never seem to get any easier.