Energy “Plan” – No New Transmission


The energy industry in the US is complicated and when I write posts I like to provide a decent amount of background for my thesis that we are allowing our energy infrastructure to deteriorate and not doing anything constructive about the situation. One critical element of this is that the greens and left-leaning individuals, who decry “old school” solutions like building new coal plants and promote complicated and unproven alternatives to these known, sensible and cost-effective solutions – are being disingenuous when they counter propose their “solutions”, because in the end they don’t want to do anything constructive at all to re mediate and solve the issues. This opinion article, in the New York Times, neatly encapsulates their duplicity by clearly stating that they don’t WANT to solve the transmission problem, even if someone could wind their way through the rats nest of financing, legal issues, and permitting. Thus it represents an important piece of evidence as a “confession” of their duplicity.


The energy infrastructure of the United States consists of three main components:

– Generation (nuclear, coal, gas, hydro, and other)
– Transmission (the lines that connect power stations to cities, and the utilities to each other)
– Distribution (the local electric lines, customer meter, trucks, etc…)

In general, the US has failed to invest in generation and transmission assets over the last 25 years or so. “Base load” generation primarily consists of 1) coal plants (no one is building new ones because of environmental legislation) 2) hydroelectric plants (no one is damming rivers due to the Sierra Club) 3) nuclear plant (they are far too expensive, regulation is uncertain, and Three Mile Island hasn’t gone away). There have been some “peaker” plants running natural gas (more expensive) and some minor “renewable” projects but generally we have just been “running in place” with regards to capacity and utilizing up all the “reserve” capacity that had been built up in previous years, as evidenced by blackouts in places like California.

Transmission consists of the long high voltage lines that crisscross the country. While some of these lines have been rebuilt and capacity upgraded, generally we have NOT built new transmission lines. Transmission lines that cross the country or long distances require permitting and siting and can take decades to build, if you can stomach the endless rounds of negotiating with all parties along the way and an ever changing morass of regulatory issues. Even after a line is permitted and built, the courts can stop them from functioning, such as a famous undersea transmission cable in the East that cost hundreds of millions to build.

Distribution is the third major leg, and there has been some investment in distribution, smart metering, etc… This investment is easier to make because it doesn’t have to run the same “thicket” of environmental and legal regulations and is more in the control of the local utility, which is also tied in with local governments. Improvements in distribution have bought us time and allowed us to get by with the generation and transmission grid we have, but it isn’t a panacea to our overall problems. Generally if there is going to be conservation it comes out of the distribution area because this is where the “demand management” programs reside which attempt to adjust consumer behavior and incent either lower electricity usage overall or, more importantly, less energy usage on peak.


After improvements in distribution have reached the point that incremental investment only yields marginal returns, the next place that the government will look is transmission. Our transmission grid today really represents the “best guess” of population centers and generation locations as of the 60’s and 70’s… almost 40-50 years ago – because almost no new lines of any significant substance have been laid down since that time. Thus while it functions reasonably well, if you could target investment you could likely leverage generation assets much better, including linking to areas where renewable power could be located (i.e. windy areas in the great planes, offshore wind farms, deserts where solar panels could be located, etc…).

Like the big false hoopla over nuclear power plant (which I demolish here), there has been big talk of our new appetite for investing in bona-fide new transmission assets. Like nuclear power, this one is NOT going to happen, and here’s why.

1) any route has to be circuitous and planned almost decades in advance – here is a blog post I wrote about a fight for a transmission line in the West and you can see its circuitous (i.e. VERY expensive) route, which costs > $1M / mile

2) while the greens claim to be rational and open to solutions, in fact they are against EVERYTHING. This article, listed above, is indicative of their “true” feelings

This article is an editorial in the New York Times basically staking out their conceptual opposition to transmission lines, that they don’t want power from other states coming to New York. They are glossing over the source of the power, but if anyone was actually going to DO something about our power situation, they would support some sort of generation increase and then support some sort of investment in a transmission grid to get that power where it is needed, which is cities like New York.

This article lays out bare that they DON’T really support any kind of constructive solution to the situation, they just want to push on demand which in turn ultimately is going to drive any kind of manufacturing or energy intensive activity out of the state, because rates will have to rise to discourage use. They really feel that we shouldn’t invest in energy because it is “bad” to do so, and that if we just reduced our energy footprint to zero, the world would be a better place.


On top of all the above problems (that the greens and left will sabotage any constructive solution to the situation), there is the fact that EVEN IF all the forces lined up for going forward with transmission investment (or generation, for that matter), financing is very difficult right now, and the utilities have little incentive to stretch and fund something that the states could invalidate even after giving you all the permits to go forward. Remember, out east, they dismantled a completely constructed nuclear plant on Long Island (Shoreham), pretty much bankrupting the Long Island utility company in the process. Needless to say, you don’t get something like that built without permits, but in the end they play so dirty with politics and lawyers they won and had it disassembled.

Lenders would have to have a lot of cash laying around and have no grasp of history to fund these types of investments, for generation or transmission, in the East.

Thus, no solutions on the horizon, and all of the current administration and legislatures’ positioning on the issue is just hot air, useless. Their actual platform is:

– do nothing about generation
– do nothing about transmission
– invest a little bit in distribution
– talk a lot about conservation
– dance for a few years, let the problem get much worse, and hand it to the next administration, or really to the states, since the Federal government can’t FIX the problems, but they can make them worse (thru legislation)

Very soon you will hear the current administration speak much less of energy, since they don’t offer any concrete solutions, and the problems have a longer time horizon than their campaign rhetoric.

Cross posted at LITGM

13 thoughts on “Energy “Plan” – No New Transmission”

  1. All of this seems to point to: incipient power shortages which will be met by emergency approval to install peaking turbines–relatively close to the load, so relatively little transmission work required. These will probably be fairly small installations and will not be adjacent to cooling water, so will not be highly-efficient combined-cycle types–hence, will use *a lot* of natural gas.

    Also, any thoughts on cogeneration (discussed in my post here)?

  2. Have you read anything about Georgia Power planning new nuclear plants? The legislature just passed a special deal whereby the power company can collect charges for the capital to be used in the construction prior to the plant going into service.
    Given your ‘rosy'[not] outlook for nuclear power, is it possible that this plant will never be built, yet Georgia Power will have collected significant funds prior to spending anything on construction? Maybe they plan on using customer outrage as a cudgel against the usual expected environmental protests.
    tom in Canton

  3. David – I am not an engineer and not super familiar about co generation but certainly it has its place. A close relative of mine works for the University of Illinois and they use their steam from the plants for heating as well as to generate power. Certainly it can make a lot of sense in the right context. Of course you could never SITE those plants near students today, since they are coal fired, but that is a different story.

    Natural gas plants have been the de-facto answer to our crisis, and then they impact the natural gas market for customers. I don’t talk much about natural gas, because they mainly are the “last resort” when we don’t build anything else. They can be nearer to the grid and can be used for peak load.

    From a financial perspective – the peakers provide a massive windfall for the legacy owners of coal and nuclear plants because the market setting price is that of the “last unit” and if that is gas the marginal cost of power is MUCH higher than for coal, nuclear or hydro so they love the default building of gas plants. But it doesn’t impact the fact that a base load gas sceneario would be much more expensive.

    Tom – I used to work in Georgia and will look into that. I would say that Georgia MIGHT be able to pull of a nuclear plant for a bunch of unique reasons. Someday when I get a few minutes I’ll do some research and write about it.

  4. I had a class, not a indoc that was like this. It was billed as an international business course, but what it was really is why white males should be blamed for everything. Luckily, I was an older student returning from service as a vet, so I wasn’t afraid to call the professor’s bullshit. She was a doddering old woman who realized she was outgunned and so she actually toned the class down..

  5. what made it worse was the other younger white dudes in the class who wanted to seem sensitive, or hip, or god knows what. I told one of them to hand his genitals in after class, because they’d been revoked…

  6. Phew… I thought your comment made more sense on the indoctrination post. But many of the people planning our infrastructure for energy don’t have much in the way of balls so I wasn’t sure

  7. Known technology could save us, but won’t until a crisis hits us hard. The money isn’t there, the public knowledge isn’t there, the public will isn’t there and the inmates (the left) are in charge of the insane asylum (our present government).

    There are known technologies which would solve all these problems. It must be nuclear, because what else would be clean enough to get past the gatekeepers who will still be in place?

    It must be non proliferating, so you can’t make atomic bombs with it. It must help dispose of the thousands of tons of radioactive waste parked in ponds outside our current Light Water Nuclear reactors. It must be scalable so the power plants could be sized from 50 megawatts for small towns to a number of Gigawatt plants for big cities. It must have physical fail safes built into it so that it could never get out of control and hurt anyone. It must operate at high temperatures, but normal atmospheric pressure, so that it could never explode. It must use raw materials which are widely abundant, so that the US alone has enough materials to supply the world’s power needs for the next ten thousand years. Those raw materials must not be dangerous during transportation. Producing all these Gigawatt of power results in a very tiny amount of nuclear waste which is dangerous for only a short half life. A single coal mile would be large enough to store the world’s radioactive waste for the 600 years necessary to make it totally safe.

    Most likely, you are thinking that I am talking about a Fusion Reactor, but I am not. Fusion reactors look plausible, but they have looked so for forty years and might look so for the next forty. So, what is it? It is a Liquid Fluoride Thorium reactor. It has all of the above characteristics.

    The next problem is that of the transmission towers. What we need are batteries which can be charged at the nuclear plant, so that it runs at 100% capacity, and are trucked to local distribution sites. Why? Because this would be cheaper, more energy efficient and faster to create than taking five to ten years to build a power distribution system. Besides, the grid wastes enormous amounts of energy — between 30 to 60% of the power is lost. These batteries would be charged and always ready to be heated up to give full power.

    Take a look at this battery. It has many valuable characteristics. It has a very high energy density. It is very cheap and made of inexpensive molten metals and salts at 650 degree centigrade. When it has solidified below the molten state, then it could be loaded onto a tractor trailer and delivered to your neighborhood power center or factory. It is cheap enough that extra batteries could be stored locally in case of emergencies like snow storms, etc. This, also, means that there are no towers which would attract terrorists. There would no single points of failure which would take down vast areas.

    A new design of fast charging Lithium-Ion batteries could power homes and electric cars. I would not trust the molten salt battery (above) in a car where a crash could spray 600 degree centigrade metal over the occupants. But, the fast charging Lithium Ion battery would require very high DC currents and it would be too inconvenient to pull from an electrical grid. It would be no problem pull this power from the above liquid metal battery.

  8. Well…

    I am not an engineer but I would say that the current population of energy companies, utilities and regulators are not going to go for anything that isn’t dirt simple and known. Sure, they will sponsor research and test sites, in the guise of pretending to do something, but there won’t be innovation on the generation or much in the transmission side.

    Likely there will be some innovation in the distribution side, smart meters and the like, and new houses, condos and business construction will take energy efficiency into mind when they are being developed.

    The most likely “innovation” will be a steady rise in prices which will call for more and more “savings” on the back end to avoid higher costs, and also a heavier regulatory hand controlling air conditioning and the like as blackouts start.

    Remember – the utilities are basically the government – and what the heck has the government innovated since the moon landing? Nothing. They can’t even STORE the waste for nuclear plants at the Yucca site.

  9. NYT Op-Ed is just waht you would expect from a Deval Patrick appointee, and I’m sure the Obama Admin will in the end echo his sentiments (I won’t dignify them with the word “thoughts”).

    Building a long distance transmission line is like building a new railroad–it just doesn’t happen anymore.

    So, we will wind up with small and inefficient local generation instead of a rationala nd efficient system, and teh greens will fight that every step of the way—

    see other post about village life in 3rd world hell-holes, for the obvious connection through left environmentalism

  10. The Navajos have done pretty well with huge coal fired plants on their reservation in Arizona that sell power to California. I suspect we will see more power plants on Indian reservations as the years go by. Sort of sweet justice for the Indians; casinos and now power plants.

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