How Much More Transmission Do We Need?

All of the transmission cables you see strung across the western United States and Canada could wrap around the Earth four and a half times.   New Federal policies and a utility industry emphasis on connecting cities to some of the most destructive energy projects on remote wildlands has resulted in plans to add up to seven thousand circuit miles of new transmission lines in the west, alone, including several new lines in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.  The White House's latest directive on transmission seeks to institute a fast-track approval system for these lines, ostensibly to reach renewable energy projects, but fails to establish an institutional incentive for the energy industry to invest in efficiency or distributed generation as a less costly alternative to new transmission and remote power plants.

This map shows transmission lines as of 2009, and only those that are 230 kilovolt (kv) or greater.
Abusive RelationshipThe transmission system is complex, and we will be mostly dependent on a healthy grid for quite some time, even under an ideal scenario with aggressive deployment of rooftop solar and energy efficiency investments.  However, as technology avails less destructive alternatives - a smarter grid, energy efficiency, and distributed generation - the question we should be asking is how much new transmission do we really need to transition to a clean energy future?  That question will get a different response depending on who you ask.   One thing is clear - investor owned utilities are staunch advocates for new transmission because they are guaranteed a healthy profit margin when they invest in new lines.  Investor owned utilities - including Southern California Edison, PG&E, SDG&E, NV Energy, and APS - meet the vast majority of electricity demand in southwestern states, so their decisions on where to locate new power plants have tremendous impact on our climate and our wildlands.  And they make decisions based on a primary objective: profit. 
To make progress, we must first acknowledge that we are locked in an abusive relationship.  Investor-owned utility-companies make more money when they build new transmission lines.  To justify new transmission lines, utility companies like to reinforce the notion that clean energy must come from far away.  They will tell you the sun shines better in the desert than in Los Angeles to justify building a 5 square mile solar facility over 100 miles away from the customers they serve.  But then they tell ratepayers that a cloud passing over that single solar facility makes it an unreliable energy source, so now they need to build a natural gas peaker plant somewhere else far from the city to provide standby power, and build more transmission lines to reach that project.   State regulators allow them to pass these costs along to ratepayers, and force ratepayers to provide utility companies with a return on their investment.   If we do not change this relationship, we will be forced to accept the status quo - more destruction of wildlands, and the continued dominance of fossil fuels in the grid.

Utility companies do not see much of an alternative in how they make money, so they see new developments in energy efficiency and distributed generation (e.g. rooftop solar), and battery storage of distributed generation as a threat.  When we save energy, or draw from local clean energy sources,  utility companies cannot justify building remote power plants and the expensive new transmission lines to connect them to our cities. 

Only When They Are Told
Utility companies typically only invest in energy efficiency and distributed generation when they are required to do so by state regulators.  California's legislature and Public Utilities Commission have required utilities to adopt robust efficiency programs, and a still-growing rooftop solar program, for example.  Arizona, on the other hand, is back-pedalling on its rooftop solar incentives, probably swayed by the influence of the utility companies.  

Nevada has missed a lot of opportunities, and is redoubling investments in the status quo.  Nevada's utility company - NV Energy - was threatened by a bill in the Nevada legislature that would have included incentives for rooftop solar, and stepped in to lobby the legislature and rewrote the bill.   The bill that passed the Nevada legislature no longer includes any mention of rooftop solar, but it will allow NV Energy to continue investing in a mixture of large solar plants on pristine desert, new natural gas plants, and plenty of transmission lines.

Major transmission lines are greater than 100kv.  Most of the lines you see crossing public lands in the desert southwest are 230kv or greater.
More Transmission Planned for the Desert
We are about to embark upon an aggressive investment in new transmission lines - electric lines to our cities and natural gas pipelines to feed new power plants - that utility companies hope will anchor us to an old paradigm where they tell us how, and from where we receive our electricity.   A 2011 report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) identified over seven thousand planned circuit miles of new lines in the western United States through 2021.  A new 230 kv transmission line can cost - at a minimum - 1.4 million dollars per mile, but the total cost per mile is much more if the line crosses rough terrain, and you can add millions more for substations, according to the Western Electricity Coordinating Council (WECC).  The Sunrise Powerlink line that runs 117 miles from San Diego to the Imperial Valley cost ratepayers over $2 billion dollars, so you can see that these minimum cost estimates can end up being much more.

Here is a sampling of the new lines proposed in the southwest:

Coolwater-Lugo Line
Among the planned transmission projects in the west, Southern California Edison (SCE) claims the Coolwater-Lugo line would allow for the addition of more large-scale renewable energy projects and improve grid reliability.  The line would parallel existing transmission in some areas, but create a new transmission corridor through North Lucerne Valley to connect to a substation east of Barstow.  Although the proposed Granite Mountain Wind project east of Apple Valley may require a new substation and few miles of transmission lines along existing corridors, it's not clear why SCE wants to add 35 miles of new lines to a substation east of Barstow.

Sun Zia Line
The proposed Sun Zia transmission line would stretch 515 miles from New Mexico to Arizona, crossing intact desert and mountain ecosystems, including the San Pedro River Valley.  This part of Arizona supports rich bird habitat and a migration corridor.  The transmission line would destroy habitat and pose a hazard to migrating birds.   Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, and Representative Paul Grijalva have questioned the need for the line, noting that upgrades to existing transmission corridors would likely be sufficient.

Another proposed transmission line called "Southline" would stretch across 360 miles of New Mexico and Arizona.  The proponent, Western Area Power Administration, claims the line would allow for increased renewable energy generation and relieve congestion.  As with the case of Sun Zia, it is more likely that fossil fuels will benefit from the line more than renewables, and if utilities were required to do so, they could invest in more distributed generation and energy efficiency to ease congestion concerns and reduce the need for energy imports.

Barren Ridge Line
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power wants to add nearly 88 miles of new lines from the western Mojave Desert, and across Angeles National Forest.  The lines will connect the city to a growing expanse of wind turbines near the small towns of Mojave and Tehachapi, including some projects that are deadly to golden eagles and may threaten the California condor as the species recovers and hopefully expands its range.

Centennial West Clean Line
This is another multi-state line that would span 878 to 919 miles of New Mexico, Arizona, and California, depending on which route is chosen.  One of the proposed routes would cut right through scenic desert mountains and valleys within the boundaries of Senator Feinstein's proposed Mojave Trails National Monument.  No large transmission lines currently exist on this part of the route.

Transwest Express Line
This 725 mile line would connect Wyoming and Nevada, presumably delivering wind energy from the Sierra Madre and Chokecherry wind projects to the west coast.  The Sierra Madre and Chokecherry projects - when built - could become some of the most fatal wind facilities to golden eagles and other raptors in the country.  With nearly 1,000 wind turbines planned, the project will industrialize over 355 square miles of grassland.

Silver Platter
Our desire to move away from fossil fuels has delivered this opportunity to utility companies on a silver platter.  Requiring utilities to increase renewable energy generation gives them an excuse to invest heavily in new infrastructure.  A utility company hardly cares whether their transmission lines run to a toxic coal power plant or a golden eagle-killing wind facility - as long as state regulators tell them they can pass the costs to us, and as long as they don't have to kill their own business model by investing in energy efficiency and rooftop solar. 

As environmentalists, we must consider what mix of destruction we want in our renewable energy future, keeping in mind that remote central projects and their accompanying transmission lines tend to require a lot of carbon-intensive materials and construction processes.  Each transmission line will require tons of new cement, aluminum, and steel.  Energy efficiency, distributed generation, and facilities on disturbed lands close to the load centers, on the other hand, require much less of these materials.

If we want a more sustainable path, we have a fight on our hands.  The light bulb in the heads of utility companies is burning bright - they can make plenty of money from this transition to renewable energy by encouraging remote, centralized projects.   When we ask for investments in distributed generation, utility companies ironically attack the idea as too expensive, unfair, or dangerous to the grid.   Utilities want to tell us when, where, and how we will transition to clean energy, even if it is a path that remains unfriendly to our ecosystems.  Their environmental record is abysmal, however, and we must turn the tables in this relationship.


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