The way we move electricity around in the United States isn’t designed to meet modern energy needs. Since the beginning of the electric grid, power companies have placed most power plants close to cities. Railroads and pipelines were used to ship fossil fuels from wherever they were extracted to the power plants where they would be burned to make electricity.
That model doesn’t work with solar and wind because many of the best places to generate lots of electricity are far away from urban centers. To maximize clean energy’s potential, we’re going to need much longer lines to move that power from where it’s made to where it’s needed.
Even if we were not working toward a clean energy future, though, we would still need to update our grid because our grid infrastructure is just plain old. Most of our current transmission and distribution lines were built between the 1950s and 1970s, and they only have a 50-year life expectancy. Beyond being old and outdated, there’s another big problem making everything worse: Our grid is fragmented. Most people talk about the “electric grid” as if it’s one single grid covering the whole nation from coast to coast, but it’s actually a complicated patchwork of systems with different levels of connection to one another.
Our convoluted network prevents communities from importing energy when challenges like extreme weather shut off their power. It also prevents power from new clean energy projects from making it to people’s homes. Right now, over 1,000 gigawatts worth of potential clean energy projects are waiting for approval — about the current size of the entire U.S. grid — and the primary reason for the bottleneck is the lack of transmission. Complicating things further is the fact that new infrastructure projects are typically planned and executed by hundreds of individual utility companies that aren’t required to coordinate.
To clear the way, the United States needs to address the three main barriers that are to blame for the lack of progress:
Planning: Like all infrastructure projects, new transmission lines and grid upgrades start with planning. Plans are usually based on near-term energy use forecasts or even backward-looking data, which means new lines aren’t being built with future needs in mind. How these policies are developed and implemented will be critically important.
Paying: The federal government determines how large-scale infrastructure improvements are funded, either via tax payments or through allocating cost to consumers. The government should help address cost allocation problems by spreading the costs of big projects across entire regions instead of asking only the people at the end of the line to pay.
Permitting: Although the federal government determines who pays for most transmission upgrades, states are primarily the ones who issue permits for new projects. The current permitting process is long, convoluted and often outdated.
Although transmission is primarily a policy problem, innovation will help too. For example, grid-enhancing technologies such as dynamic line ratings, power flow controls, and topology optimization could increase the capacity of the existing system.
Put simply: Transmission is key to our clean energy future. If we address the barriers standing in the way of that future, it will lead to lower emissions, cleaner air, more jobs, fewer blackouts, more energy and economic security, and healthier communities across the country.
This article was excerpted from a blog post written by Bill Gates. Read his complete article here.