“Shovel Ready” Transmission


There has been a lot of discussion lately about the nations’ electrical transmission grid. The transmission grid connects the power stations to the local distribution network. The transmission grid also allows utilities to “interconnect” and exchange / sell power between different entities.

Upgrading the transmission grid would have many advantages to the United States. Many of the lines are older and don’t have much spare capacity, or they are less efficient than new modern designs and waste less electricity along the way.

The transmission grid also does not connect to where the “new” sources of generation may lie. For example, the grid was designed to match fossil fuel / nuclear generating stations to major population centers, or to bring power from large hydroelectric facilities to the cities, as well. In some instances the grid was designed to “interconnect” major power companies to one another, such as on the East Coast.

As you can imagine, these reasons for building the original grid aren’t ready-made for new, “renewable” sources of energy. If you want to connect up a wind farm or a set of solar panels in the desert, it doesn’t matter how much power you can generate unless it can be brought onto the grid and transmitted to the cities (without excessive line loss).

When I was in the utility industry working as a consultant one time I went to an EEI conference (the big electrical utility conference) where I heard one of the CEO’s at the time talk about the transmission grid. The topic was how to value the transmission grid assets. His response was

The value of the transmission grid is infinite and unmeasurable, because we could never obtain those rights-of-way to rebuild them at any price


Since the greens and democrats have come into power energy topics are back in vogue. For a little while there was a romance with nuclear power (which will never materialize, see here) and now we see a wave of interest in transmission. Now that the democrats have to govern the country they realize that they have to actually govern and not just throw stones at a republican administration and that these are issues that require policy and resolution.

This map below shows a proposed transmission line in California (from The Economist dated February 14, 2009), designed to bring power from the desert where solar cells will be installed to the rest of the line and major cities. Note that this line is PROPOSED – this writer and most readers will likely be deceased before this line ever is accepted, built, and comes into service.

But you can see from the PROPOSED line how many compromises are needed in the current political climate. The line has to snake around any sort of park or Indian tribal area. The line is clearly not the most efficient route from point A to point B, and since you pay for transmission lines by the mile, this is going to make the cost of the line much higher than it would be otherwise.

Not shown is all the money that must have been spent on lawyers and lobbyists just to get to this pathetic compromise. Siting a line like this takes years and years of studies, and at any step along the way some judge or lawyer or politician can shut it down for almost any reason.

The most famous example of this is an undersea electric cable that connects near New York City – the line was approved, built, and ready for use when a judge shut it down and now it lies unused, in an area that desperately needs the power.

What you will see is something like this photo that I was able to snap (without killing myself) while driving near Chicago. The photo shows a new, modernized transmission line being built alongside an interstate, taking the place of an older line. This sort of transmission upgrade is possible, because there are no “rights of way” issues to resolve – the utility is just replacing existing infrastructure.

This is the only “shovel ready” infrastructure possible to deal with our transmission crisis, and ironically it generally does nothing to push forward the idea of using renewable power because it doesn’t expand the grid to connect these new energy sources.

In any case the current administration would have to be in power for decades in order to make an appreciable dent in our electricity transmission infrastructure because of the infinitely long siting process needed for these new lines, which can easily take 10 years of effort. And note that this legal process doesn’t improve the line plans – it just makes them worse, causing detours, compromises, and raising the cost.

While there are other critical issues to resolve, including incentivizing the power companies to build these systems and finding a way to finance the construction, the most difficult problem relates to the incredible legal thicket put up in the United States and the power of lobbying organizations and politicians to put a stop to these types of projects, or delay them infinitely.

Don’t count on any of these issues being solved any time soon – they aren’t even on the radar of the current administration, and in fact represent a core element of their constituency. You’ll see them take on the teachers’ unions before this.

Cross posted at LITGM

6 thoughts on ““Shovel Ready” Transmission”

  1. I think were recreating in a modern context the convoluted system of rights that strangled central Europe’s economy well up until the Napoleonic era. In that time, land not only had an owner, but multiple people with rights to the proceeds to that land, the right to run cattle on it or just the right to cross it. People sold off these proceeds in bits and drabs which then got folded into the estates of others and further traded or passed down as inheritance. In order to sell or change the use of the land, one had to buy all the rights associated with the land. At times, this meant negotiating with hundreds of people in order to use a few acres.

    We’re doing the same thing with the granting of de facto rights of ownership to people who do not own the land. Environmental laws let almost anyone sue over land use even if they have no relation to the land or the project in anyway. Up to four levels of government have to coordinate in many instances. Today, it takes us years to build things that pre-60’s America built in weeks or months.

    Siting a line like this takes years and years of studies, and at any step along the way some judge or lawyer or politician can shut it down for almost any reason.

    To return to the theme of my last post, the Chinese do not face this kind of impediment. They can build things with lightening speed compared to us. Worse, I don’t think our procedural fussiness buys us any significant safety and it certainly doesn’t pay off long term in efficiency.

    We’re basically just paying homage to a class of people who produce little but who want to inject themselves into the decisions of the productive. It’s like were supporting a vast priest class like the Aztecs or the Hindus. They make a good living protecting us from harms that only they can see.

  2. Regardless of the historical context I find it humorous and ironic that the very groups that elected Obama in the first place will fanatically stymie his attempts to get anything done that is “shovel ready” towards his goal of renewable energy.

    Also – these types of fights “fund” the left in the first place – they provide fodder for advertising campaigns for NGO’s, lawyers to “fight the power” – these are their cash in trade.

    It will be fun watching the semi-pragmatic democrats going to war with the loony left who fight all construction anywhere.

    There is that famous line that the best thing to do when your enemies are infighting is to do nothing and wait. I am garbling it exactly but you can understand the intent.

  3. One thing that’s interesting & depressing is the number of people in the “technology industry” who support the Democrats and who have fully bought in to the unrealistic expectations for “alternative energy.” Many of these people actually have electrical engineering degrees, albeit usually with a concentration in electronics rather than in power engineering.

    In the case of some venture capitalists, there is clearly chop-licking going on at the prospect of massive subsidies for technologies which their portfolio companies provide (or plan/hope to provide)…these VCs may have not really thought out the impact of very high electricity prices on the economy as a whole and on the *rest* of their portfolio companies. But there are also lots of tech-industry denizens who have no financial stake at all in aternative energy–and who have a big financial stake in reasonable energy prices, whether they know it or not–who share the “progressive” worldview on energy & on many other things.

  4. The problem with letting them fight it out is that they don’t really have any concern for the general productivity or freedom of the society.

    As the collapse and stagnation of the Great Lake states into the rustbelt shows, leftist work from an economic and political version of Milton’s “better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” They would rather dominate in a crippled, poor and unproductive society than be equals in an effective, wealthy and productive society.

    They will block projects like power transmission and power generation simply to force people to deal with them. They will invent reasons why people have to consult with them and give them veto power over new projects simply so they can have some power and position. They’ve positioned themselves to only gain by putting the breaks on development.

    The situation is identical that of the mandarins versus everyone else in the final decades of failing Chinese dynasties. The mandarins mandated vast amounts of ritual and paperwork purely to justify their own positions. Unable to contribute materially, they instead created positions of power based on saying no more than saying yes. As a result, the governments of the dynasties grew progressively more paralyzed and incapable of action. Eventually they fell to internal revolt from the hinterlands or foreign invasion. The mandarin dead wood got cleared out and the process started all over again.

  5. Carl, “his goal of renewable energy”? Are you sure he even has goals? It’s slogans, nothing more. As soon as there will be some difficulty with quick implementation, ready for short-spanned news consumers, he’ll change the goals into something more newsworthy.

  6. Per Tatyana’s comment, a wind farm can be very successful, from the standpoint of a political leader, even if the are no transmission line to connect it to anything. It provides jobs for those who make & install the equipment, and it makes alternative-energy believers very happy. You can always say that the transmission lines will be built later, following appropriate environmentl review, or that a new, “planned” community (centered around electrically-powered mass transit) will be built right next to the wind farm, or that “green” manufacturing will be located there. It doesn’t matter if these things ever actually happen: you will still get the glory and someone else can worry about paying off the bonds.

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