Can America’s power grid accommodate a more dominant role for renewables in the energy mix? As the grid stands today, the answer is no. Our society is putting increasing demands on electric infrastructure that wasn’t designed for today needs — much less what we’re asking of it to support a cleaner energy future. Modern, robust and flexible infrastructure for delivering electricity generation over long distances is essential to the nation’s successful transition to a larger share of renewable energy.
The fact is, the current grid is outdated and inadequate for the task of tapping America’s virtually unlimited clean energy resources. Seventy percent of high-voltage transmission lines and power transformers — the backbone system of electricity delivery — are over 25 years old. In fact, the majority of our grid was built more than 30 years ago — long before we fell in love with modern-day electronics and before electric cars became a viable solution for drivers.
We need to overhaul our nation’s electricity transmission system, creating one with the capacity to carry renewable energy resources to where they’re needed well into the future. As we move toward greater use of renewable resources, a remodeled grid will be needed to facilitate the balancing of associated intermittent flows on the system when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.
Unlike renewable generating facilities, transmission projects can take up to 10 years to complete, from conception through regional planning processes, to state siting and then ultimately to the construction phase. That’s why we need a more proactive approach to grid planning, done in concert with generation planning.
Connecting more renewables to the grid is only part of the equation. Factor in energy storage and other innovative technologies, a heightened focus on grid security, and how we’ll go about maintaining resource adequacy and grid reliability amid decreasing energy from coal plants, it’s clear that our country needs a more adaptable, 21st century grid for delivering power.
Many entities have a role in modernizing the grid, including federal and state energy regulators, regional planning organizations, renewable energy companies, and industry voices like WIRES — the group that promotes investment in electric infrastructure. A white paper issued in June by WIRES in partnership with economists at The Brattle Group urges grid planners to move beyond today’s outmoded planning methodologies toward a more proactive and immediate approach to identifying transmission solutions that can address long-term uncertainties and provide a broad range of customer benefits. Reforming transmission planning processes could save electricity customers $47 billion annually, according to WIRES.
The good news is that transmission investment has an outsized benefit in that it lowers the price of power to customers by providing them access to lower cost of supplies. Transmission is the smallest portion of a customer’s bill — about 9% nationally, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Therefore, smart and timely transmission investment is the best means for delivering customer savings in the evolving energy landscape by facilitating lower-cost energy generation.
Collaboration is key. Our company works with various stakeholders to modernize transmission infrastructure and plan for a cleaner energy future. The more transparent the planning process for generation facilities, the more efficient transmission planning can be. This is not always easy. With the swirling debates around the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, grid security and reliability concerns, we must forge ahead and build new transmission lines and improve the ones we have despite this uncertain environment.
A great example of what our industry can accomplish with collaboration from the outset is ITC’s Thumb Loop 345-kV electric transmission line in Michigan. The 140-mile project, completed last year, has so far added more than 1,000 MW of wind energy into the state and regional mix (the line capacity is 5,000 MW). Together with the company’s V-Plan and KETA transmission projects in Kansas completed in recent years, these projects demonstrate the value of proactive, collaborative planning among industry, regulators and state policymakers to increase transmission system capacity and reliability to support the more efficient transmission of wind energy. To date, ITC has connected more than 5,200 MW of wind energy production capacity to the grid across our footprint, with another 1,400 MW in production, and we are prepared to connect 372 MW of solar generation currently in regional approval processes.
Harnessing the sun or wind to power your own home or neighborhood is an attractive idea. Though it might initially seem counterintuitive, distributed generation — power produced at or near the location where it is consumed — is an application of renewable energy generation that requires proactive transmission planning. While there is discussion around how distributed generation will impact a local or regional power grid, it will never be a simple either/or proposition.
Transmission infrastructure and central generation will still be needed to maintain reliable electric service when those non-dispatchable intermittent facilities are not generating. Distributed generation and other emerging technologies that decrease system load should be viewed as a complement to transmission rather than a substitute. These limitations of distributed generation must be addressed before its market penetration is so widespread that it’s too late to make the necessary policy reforms that will support the safe growth of this technology.
Our views on these issues are based on promoting what’s best for the nation’s power grid, and therefore electricity customers. Customers generally want safe and reliable electricity service at affordable rates. We believe that a well-planned energy future featuring a diverse energy profile supported by modern transmission infrastructure can meet these customer needs.