The challenges and changes facing America’s power-delivery highway

Posted on Feb 28 2010 in Features

Electric cooperative lineworkers in Missouri survey the damage after a powerful ice storm devastated electric transmission and distribution lines across the Midwest, including Southern Indiana, in late January of 2009. (Photo by Jim McCarty, Rural Missouri)

Few things cripple power lines like an ice storm.

A year ago at this time, in late January 2009, one of the largest such storms on record swept through the central United States, coating power lines with up to 3 inches of ice. Thousands of miles of power lines and tens of thousands of utility poles snapped under the weight, leaving some 1.3 million homes and businesses across eight states in the dark.

The storm hit Indiana hard near the Ohio River. Around 50,000 consumers in six co-op systems serving the southern tiers of counties lost power. Michael Hammack, CEO of Southern Indiana Power, declared the event the most devastating in his cooperative’s 70-year history. The Tell City-based co-op, serving mostly Perry and Spencer counties, had 8,000 of its 10,000 consumers without power. “We had to rebuild what took decades to put up,” he said.

Line workers from other REMCs around the state converged on the stricken co-ops to help restore power. Afterward, another fleet of Indiana crews crossed into western Kentucky where the damage was even more widespread and severe.

Federal disaster areas were declared in Arkansas, Kentucky and Missouri. In Arkansas, 35,000 electric co-op-owned poles were left broken and splintered. Damage to Missouri electric cooperatives was $175 million; Kentucky electric co-ops suffered more than $106 million in damages.

Power plants that produce our nation’s electricity — coal-fired facilities, natural gas-fired generators, nuclear reactors, hydroelectric dams, and renewable sources like wind turbines and solar panels — often make headlines. But as the 2009 ice storm demonstrated, the complex network of power lines crisscrossing neighborhoods and open country remains critical to supplying consumers with safe, reliable and affordable electricity.

At a time when increasing renewable electricity generation and energy efficiency are national priorities, the success of both relies on a well-maintained and up-to-date electric delivery system.

‘The largest machine ever built’

The tricky thing about electricity is that it must be used, or moved to where it can be used, in the second it’s produced; it generally can’t be stored like water or gas. What’s more, electricity moves at the speed of light along the path of least resistance. This basic principle calls for a carefully monitored, intricate system to move it 24 hours a day, notes the North American Electric Reliability Corporation. This Princeton, N.J.-based organization oversees reliability of the electric transmission grid covering the United States, most of Canada, and the Mexican state of Baja California Norte.

Literally millions of miles of power lines span the United States in a complex series of “highways.” These lines can be broken into two main categories: transmission, the high-voltage “interstates” supported by steel towers and other similar structures that move electricity over vast distances; and distribution, the “local roads” that run through small towns and neighborhoods and into homes and businesses.

Electric cooperatives own and maintain roughly 65,000 miles, or 6 percent, of the nation’s transmission lines and 2.5 million miles, or 42 percent, of its distribution lines, according to the Arlington, Va.-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. This co-op-maintained system could cover the distance to the moon and back five times over.

This electric transmission grid, which can be described as the largest machine ever built, has evolved and grown over the last century.

Yet today’s transmission grid struggles to meet the twin demands of carrying larger volumes of electricity (required by our digital economy) and hauling blocks of power long distances — the electricity you use to turn on a light could have been generated several states away less than a second ago. And as more power plants, including renewable energy projects like wind farms, come on-line, it’s clear that not only is the transmission grid being asked to do more than was originally envisioned, but the investment to build more transmission has struggled to keep pace.

“For the last decade or so, new transmission construction has not kept pace with the development of new power supply,” said Barry Lawson, NRECA manager of power delivery. “There hasn’t been any significant, backbone transmission added to the grid in quite some time. For awhile, we didn’t necessarily need new transmission facilities — we had an adequate transmission system. But now there’s a critical need for both new lines and improved efficiencies for existing lines, especially if the country decides to move forward with climate change and carbon-related legislation.”

Federal climate change policy would rely on developing technology for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel-burning power plants, as well as boosting energy efficiency and developing more sources of renewable energy. The latter two both impact the grid: increasing transmission efficiency to better move and use electricity can potentially reduce the need for more generation and related transmission in the near future. Renewable energy resources will likely require construction of entirely new transmission lines.

Wind, solar, geothermal, and other forms of renewable energy typically share a common setback: the areas where the power can be generated are not population centers. For remote renewable facilities to be as beneficial as possible, associated transmission lines must also be planned and built to move the power to where folks live.

“The electricity transmission and distribution system has become a national priority,” declared U.S. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu. “Before, in the last century, we generated electricity locally, and we used it locally. But because our renewable resources are in very distant parts of the country — for example, in the Dakotas, where there are incredible wind resources, or in the Southwest where there are incredible solar resources — you want to be able to move that energy over to population centers. We do not have the system to do that today.”

“Before any transmission lines are actually built, transmission planners must go through a lengthy approval process,” Lawson explained. The effort begins with a proposed route, along with possible alternatives, that take advantage of any existing electric utility rights-of-way. Once initial plans are made, a public outreach process typically begins. The pros and cons of new transmission lines are explained to neighboring communities along the proposed routes. If there is little or no opposition, the permitting process within the impacted states can begin.  However, there is typically significant opposition to the construction of new transmission.

“Permitting entails a time-consuming, often expensive process that does not have a certain outcome,” Lawson continued. “Utilities not only have to acquire permits from each state a proposed transmission line passes through, but also from other applicable federal, state, and local authorities, especially if a proposed transmission line crosses any navigable waterways, or federal lands such as national forests or parks. Any additional details those entities require to make their decisions must be provided. This typically leads to public hearings, more public outreach which can last for months and often years. In the end you may or may not receive all of the required siting approvals.

Without siting approval, a project may be terminated or another proposal may be made and the process starts over again.”

Even if the permitting process goes well, special interest groups opposed to transmission lines can put in place procedural roadblocks, including legal challenges. “With all of these issues considered, it typically takes seven to 10 years to plan and build new transmission, and in some cases it can take longer,” Lawson said.

A smarter machine for the future

Many experts agree that when new transmission and distribution lines are built, they should be designed to operate as efficiently as possible. This is one part of what’s being called a “smart grid.”

“The definition of a ‘smart grid’ varies, depending on who you’re talking to and what they’re looking to achieve,” said Jay Morrison, NRECA senior regulatory counsel. “The common thread through all smart grid technology is greater communication and integration between all the various pieces of the grid, from the power plants generating electricity to the homes and businesses using it. It’s about interoperability, automation, system visibility and control.”

Electric cooperatives have been using “smart” components for years; at least one half have deployed an Advanced Metering Infrastructure in some fashion, which has been described as the foundation for a smart grid. Advanced metering relies on high-tech meters to relay data between a co-op and where electricity is used. This information can be used to efficiently track use, pinpoint outages, control automated appliances in homes, remotely disconnect power — the list goes on.

“The smart grid is about making the use and delivery of electricity more reliable and efficient,” said Morrison. “Any new smart grid elements should be consumer-focused, added to the system only when they’re proven to be useful — too much ‘smarts’ only raises costs to consumers.”

Through the federal stimulus bill signed into law last February, the U.S. Department of Energy received $4.5 billion for a wide range of smart grid demonstration projects and investments. Utilities are hard at work determining the most useful ways to turn these funds into real results.

“If utilities have a way to collect data, such as smart meters, and two-way communication to bring that data in, they can manage the grid much more efficiently,” said Arshad Mansoor, vice president for power delivery at the Electric Power Research Institute, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based non-profit, utility-sponsored consortium whose members include electric co-ops. “Realistically, 15 percent of the energy it takes to generate, transmit, and distribute electricity can be saved with a more efficient system. How much is that? It’s roughly 40 terawatt-hours, or what it takes to power New York City for a year.”

Whatever range of technologies is used to build a smarter grid, it must make sense for consumers footing electric bills, NRECA’s Lawson stressed. “There is a great need for new transmission, and a smart grid could provide useful benefits in that area. But it needs to be something consumers want, and it must be kept affordable, practical and simple. A smart grid should help consumers save money, not spend it.”

Scott Gates writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for NRECA.