The Transmission and Distribution industry is hard at work to meet the new challenges created by the transition to renewable energy and the possibilities of greater system reliability.
With increased development and innovation taking place across the globe, it’s a reasonable time to ask if the rise of Big Transmission is everything it was supposed to be, and whether it will be a part of the solution moving forward.
Steve Huntoon (writing in Fortnightly Magazine) and Michael Beehler (replying in the same publication) recently exchanged views about the future of so-called “Big Transmission” in the energy infrastructure.
On Its Way Out?
There are some who believe that Big Transmission is on its way out the door. Even with the rise in demand of renewable energy, this view sees the promises of sweeping Big Transmission projects moving toward an inevitable end.
First, let’s get the vocabulary out of the way. “Big Transmission” means long high-voltage transmission lines, at least 500kV and at least 250 miles.
The Electric Power Transmission and Distribution Industry (T&D, for short) continues to be a major driver of economic growth and affordable energy. It also reinforces the continued growth of the renewable energy economy. The question is what role Big Transmission will play in projects of the future.
Huntoon suggested the era of Big Transmission is over. He admits that the Northeast Blackout of 2003 spurred $100 billion in new transmission investment, especially in new coal-fired generation. But since then, no Big Transmission project has won approval for future construction:
PJM has approved $25.6 billion in new transmission - but not a dollar for Big Transmission. MISO has approved $20.2 billion in new transmission - but not a dollar for Big Transmission. The Southwest Power Pool has approved $8.8 billion in new transmission - but not one dollar for Big Transmission.
Subsequent years saw an increase in delivery of wind generation (e.g., Clean Line) and the EPA's Clean Power Plan, which typify an about-face from the days of huge regional projects. This change also is the reality of modern power generation faced with higher reliability risks. Large transmission lines also mean stricter contingency limits; Big Transmission poses a large overload potential for the grid.
The thought process here is that there were many drivers of Big Transmission over the last decade, but the results have not matched the buildup, leading many to question whether it was ever going to work at all. Projects have been altered, sidetracked or shut down.
Meanwhile, most regions are experiencing more incremental expansion, which is economical and easier to plan, functioning predominantly off of current grid structures.
The Other Side
Others see a narrow definition in this read of Big Transmission. Michael Beehler’s contention is that public/regulatory policy, economic viability and the need to sustain near-100-percent system reliability could soon push North America and the world into building more Big Transmission projects—not fewer.
In his rebuttal, Beehler writes that Huntoon’s definition removes projects from the discussion that could be considered Big Transmission. Indeed, the T&D industry is hard at work meeting new challenges created by the transition to renewable energy.
Beeler believes that projects in the 150- to 200-mile range could be categorized as Big Transmission, “because of the range of facility improvements — and substantial capital investment — they spurred throughout the entire regional grid.”
As Huntoon states, incremental improvements are less expensive. However, they are not always the most prudent plan long-term, and that can make Big Transmission the more economical solution in certain situations.
While some of the policies and funds for Big Transmission were met with little to no success, this doesn’t mean projects currently in the works won’t come to fruition. Additionally, the economic need to constantly achieve improved reliability could result in the United States venturing into even more Big Transmission projects.
Big Transmission was once believed to go hand-in-hand with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. The projected impact of that EPA plan was thought to be a major driver of Big Transmission’s growth. Although many are yet to see this come to pass, its absence does not make it impossible.
In sum, the future of Big Transmission may be bright, simply because the public, as well as regulatory policies, are forcing the industry’s hand. Environmentally conscious changes are continually being put in place. This driver, rather than being an indication of Big Transmission’s failure, may yet be a harbinger of its future growth.