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Transmission: Backbone of the Clean Energy Grid
New York, NY – While not the sexiest topic to discuss in a world of battery storage, solar arrays, and distributed generation, the nation’s electricity transmission infrastructure is the backbone of our grid and is imperative to reaching our national and state-level clean energy goals. Transmission (think huge overhead wires that transmit electricity over long distances) enables the bulk transfer of electrical energy. Transmission projects have been identified as the most difficult public infrastructure projects to develop; overhead wires are generally ugly, basically everyone exhibits NIMBY-ism (Not In My Back Yard), the projects are multi-jurisdictional spanning up to hundreds of miles and crossing counties, towns, hamlets, and villages, and almost no one understands how important transmission wires are for increasing reliability, reducing generation and congestion costs, and of utmost importance in today’s environment, reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions. If there’s one thing for you to understand about the importance of transmission, it’s this: Transmission enables clean energy (e.g. utility scale solar and wind farms), typically located in rural areas where there’s plenty of space (e.g. western and northern NY) and relatively little demand, to reach areas where there’s relatively little generation capacity but substantial electricity demand (e.g. New York City).
This past Thursday (2/4), Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy hosted the New York Clean Energy Transmission Summit, where conference participants discussed the importance of the transmission network. Speaking to a packed house, John Jimison, Director of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid and Managing Director of the Energy Future Coalition, called the Summit “the greatest collection of energy talent in New York City since Thomas Edison dined alone” – and he was right. Some of the talent speaking at the conference was Audrey Zibelman, Chair of the New York Public Service Commission, Sergej Mahnovski, Director of Utility of the Future (Con Edison), 2 former Chairs of FERC (Jon Wellinghoff 2009-2013 and James J. Hoecker 1997-2001), Richard Kauffman, Chairman of Energy and Finance for New York, Gil Quiniones, President and CEO, New York Power Authority, and Jigar Shah, founder of SunEdison, father of the PPA, former CEO of Richard Branson’s Carbon War Room, and President of Generate Capital (full list of speakers here). Below are some of the highlights from the conference:
REV is not about distributed energy, it’s about optimizing the entire system – Audrey Zibelman, Chair, New York Public Service Commission
While the PSC’s Reforming the Energy Vision is typically mentioned in the same breath as battery storage and distributed generation, Chair Zibelman made it clear that it’s not just about the localized aspects of DG and batteries. Optimizing transmission infrastructure is just as important (if not more important) as the sexier side of REV (again, batteries and DG). It is impossible to reach the state’s ambitious 50by30 (50% renewable by 2030) goal without optimizing (and expanding) the state’s transmission infrastructure. Large scale renewable power projects need to be integrated into the grid and able to deliver clean power where it’s needed. (Sidenote: equally, if not more, impossible would be NYC’s 80by50 goal – 80% reduction of GHG emissions vs. 2005 levels by 2050 – especially if Cuomo gets his way and Indian Point nuclear power plant is retired).
Ed Krapels, President of Anbaric Transmission, LLC provided a great visual example of the need for transmission (my apologies for the quality of the graphic – presentation slides aren’t available yet and this is a picture from my phone).
In the image above, Mr. Krapels pointed out some of the tremendous wind and hydro resources available in the northeast (denoted by the windmill images in western PA and NY, northern NY, northern Maine, and offshore NJ and Long Island, and the hydro images in Quebec and New Brunswick). Transmission lines connecting these resources, with hydro complementing the more intermittent wind power, would enable much needed clean energy resources to reach and deliver a substantial percentage of power to heavy load pockets (denoted by the black circles around Toronto, Quebec, and Northern NJ/NYC/Long Island/Boston).
There’s much I can’t cover in this short article, but if interested, the full review will be produced by Columbia in the coming weeks.
To summarize the importance of transmission infrastructure, I turn to Americans for a Clean Energy Grid:
We have to avoid catastrophic climate change. Doing so requires a clean-energy future. This is only possible if we access our rich but remote resources of renewable energy. The only way to bring that energy to market is through transmission wires. Our clean-energy future must also be affordable and reliable. Building transmission is costly, but when we connect renewable resources, they reduce the market price of electricity because they have no fuel cost: the sunshine and wind are free. Renewable energy is therefore not just cleaner, it’s cheaper. Indeed, the savings quickly overtake the costs of the necessary transmission wires. A more extended and integrated regional transmission system will also mitigate the local variability of renewable resources and provide contingent power access to all interconnected generation, improving reliability. But: while it takes less than two years to build a wind farm or central solar power plant, it takes a minimum of eight years to site, permit, and build new transmission capacity. Building new transmission is therefore the threshold challenge to building a clean-energy future.
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