Transmission Upgrades in LA Take Five Years…

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Transmission Lines…to build? NO! To permit!

This report from SoCal on Newshour last night (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/science/jan-june09/grid_06-09.html) is worth a look.

I deal with public opposition to transmission upgrades and build outs a lot in my professional life, and this piece focuses on how the difficulties in siting lines are now posing problems to deployment of renewables located remotely.

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  1. Not to nit-pick, but those look like distribution wires to me. 12kV, with a 3-phase service drop, maybe?

    But, enough with the snarky comments and more to the point of your post – really good link, btw – its clear that the thinking about deployment of renewables is too narrow. The insistence on siting massive PV panel deployments and turbine farms far away from energy consumers perpetuates the top-down heirarchy of energy production and delivery that has existed in this country for three-quarters of a century.

    Its not just the siting issues that come in to play, its the costs! For every central power plant (solar, wind, nuclear, coal, gas turbine, geothermal, you name it) – you’ve essentially got to tack on an additional $2000/kW in installed costs just to cover transmission upgrades.

    So, while big central power will persist, efforts to integrate renewable and alternative energy sources close to their point of consumption deserve much more attention. Building integrated PV panels and Wind, onsite CHP/trigeneration, even micro-nuclear someday…all of these dispersed, modular generation sources have lots of benefits. Perhaps the benefit most pertinent to this issue is that they can follow load growth much more closely than any big-central power approach can. And that means avoiding the huge costs and siting issues with T&D upgrades.

    And there are ways to integrate these sources safely and effectively with the existing distribution system that maintain grid stability, avoid safety issues for utility line workers, and even provide value to the grid (ancillary services).

    Good to see these issues getting attention, though. Eventually the discourse will expand to include these distributed peer-to-peer approaches. Think of it in the same terms as the historical development of the internet and its associated protocols. After a few decades of big client-server systems…we’ve come around to a model that values P2P relationships and treats each connected machine as a giver and taker of information. The power electronics are there to do this with electricity now – more refined software algorithms will need to be developed to handle such complex power flows (and upgrades to vintage 1950s substation technology!!).

    This is the real hidden gem of all of this Smart-Grid talk; it sure doesn’t get the attention it deserves yet. Smart Meters are great and all, but the real benefits of a Smart Grid will only come when we have systems in place to better control power that flows in every direction (not just top-down from plant to transmission to distribution to user).

  2. Thanks for reading and for the comment!

    As to the photo, though “blogging” may still be a fringe journalistic art, I retreat to the timeless journalist’s shield: blame the editor! Your analysis though is pretty good. I would say that’s definitely an overbuilt 15kV primary with a service drop going to some kind of big facility that warrants the trip-115 kva xfmrs.

    I agree with the substantive portion of your post. To me, the future is smart grid and — even more — demand response that smart grid enables. Watch out as that side of the business grows and utilities continue to get buy-in from PUCs for decoupled models, they will enter the DR business heavy and become the kinds of “energy services” companies that PUHCA would have prevented.

    Still, that is the future, and the future – in this case – is not now. Wide deployment of DG is a ways off with regulatory, capital and technological hurdles still to overcome.

    In the meantime, we’ll need the capacity enhancements, and if it comes from large-scale renewables, all the better. I agree with the essential objections raised by the environmental group in the Greenpath North case, which essentially is: wherever possible use existing rights-of-way for transmission expansion.

    But, the utilities also have an obligation to serve and a rate of return cap to stay under, so options can be limited. Even where utilities try to do the right thing (i.e., in Boston, we built a 345kv line entirely underground because we realized how sensitive the line placement issue was likely to be) they end up in a protracted FERC rate approvals scrum with consumer advocates, regulators and others over cost allocation (e.g., why should the whole rate base be paying for the costs of building a “gold-plated” UG transmission line because two towns don’t like the looks of wires?).

    Its a no-win situation for the utilities in many ways. But, they should be doing more to get out in front of projects to make the need clear and begin the long and arduous work of getting public buy-in during planning stages and not only at implementation phase.

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