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Taking Transmission Back in Time

As we bat around the potential of all electric, plug-in hybrid, hydrogen battery and other possible automotive technologies, its worth noting that once upon a time, almost all of the vehicles on the road ran on…water.

Those were the days of the Stanley Steamer, and automotive technology is – in some ways – just coming back to complete the circle.

Electric transmission might be taking the same trip back in time. NYT linked through to a Climate Wire story that highlights the resurgence of direct current (DC) transmission line construction. The vast majority of transmission is on alternating current (AC), but the story recounts that DC was Edison’s preference: “…it’s all I’ll fool with.”

Today, utilities are turning to DC for three big reasons: on long-running lines DC is more efficient, the power itself doesn’t get “lost” in the AC mix, and the lines don’t present any of the electromagnetic field concerns that often cause concern for abutters (and the towers can be built smaller to boot!).

There is a joint US utility/Canadian hydro line that has just been blessed by FERC for its financing structure. That line will be DC, allowing the utilities on the buying end and the generator on the selling end to direct the contracted power directly to the load. Incidentally, that FERC blessing was not assured since the proponents are pursuing a participant-funded payment scheme instead of standard ratepayer allocation, thus avoiding the ISO market. With the addition of the DC technology, this model does raise some questions for me…what will FERC and ISOs do if a model like this emerges in more projects and essentially circumvents a lot of the open access transmission rules that deregulation put in place.

Perhaps the most immediate impact though is in the EMF mitigation. With public opposition being what it is, see this other WSJ story citing “gridlock” in getting projects permitted and sited — mitigation of the EMF risk could be a competitive advantage that transmission developers could offer regulators and communities as they compete with other proposed projects.

DC may actually complicate another common opposition concern: that the line has no benefit for those it passes because the facility is at one end of the line and the power is going to the other with a huge tower, high voltage lines and no real benefit accruing to those who live along/under the lines. The DC construction would amount to what the Climatewire story quotes one of the utility execs calling an “extension cord,” and makes it clear to transmission project abutters that their burden is explicitly to someone’s else’s benefit.

[photo credit: Universal Studios]

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17 comments on “Taking Transmission Back in Time


Not to pick, but a Stanley Steamer is an “external” combustion engine that needed kerosene to heat the water to make the steam. So to say that steam “powered” cars “ran on . . . water” is incorrect.

The rest of the posting is interesting and informative.


Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment. I understand your comment, I’m just not sure I understand where we disagree. The Stanley Steamer’s external combustion engines used either gas or kerosene to create steam — which obviously is the gaseous form of water. That vaporized water powered the machine.

It didn’t do it alone, and perhaps I should have clarified that — but, obviously you need some kind of fuel to create the steam. More to the point perhaps, even using kerosene, the benefit of the Steamer’s ECE – the subtext I perhaps should have clarified – is that the combustion is completed with a more thorough mix of air and creates a much lower level of emissions of CO and other pollutants.

Appreciate the link though and thanks again for reading the post.

Thomas Saidak

I have a silly question…..

I do not understand the “no benefit for those it passes” statement. True, one cannot simply attach a ‘spur’ line without a substation to convert the power to AC, but I cannot see any reason that it can’t be done. Am I missing something here?


Thanks for reading and for the comment. The “no benefit” argument is largely derived from my experience with public opposition to transmission line construction, and – with some merit – it goes like this: the utility that needs the capacity serves the greater Metro area. The power plant that they are connecting to could never get permitted or built in a place like that, so it is located somewhere outside of the local Beltway, some 50-250 miles away from the load center. The transmission line will take the power from Rural Powerplant to Metropolis – and in so doing, will pass right through my town and my backyard without any benefit to me. My local utility doesn’t need the power. There is not considerable load growth in my community, and this line is not connecting into any bulk transfer station in my area.

On an AC system, that argument is a little simplistic. Given that one electron on the grid is indistinguishable from another, once power is in transit on a line it remains only a matter of paperwork who has actually purchased which power from whom. If the Rural Electricity Coop serving the town through which the new transmission line passes is using the ISO’s market to bid power, then any capacity addition anywhere on that regional system is a capacity addition that everyone has access to.

But, a DC line that can direct power from a source to a load center on its own line is not a grid addition, it is, as the story notes “an extension cord” (even with the 200 additional MW of capacity that HQ US is willing to offer up for competitive bidding). This is especially true where the power is already contracted for consumption by the end user in long-term arrangement under a participant-funding model. One could even argue persuasively that its bad for the whole ISO market since now Metro-serving utilities are meeting their load needs without putting the power through the ISO markets and without the transmission capacity being placed in the open-access system.

More to the point of your question though, the power on that line is already spoken for at the end of the line — so there is no benefit to the cities and towns that have to watch it pass by overhead. As for tapping into that line, first, there is no power available to pull off (excepting that 200 MW of extra capacity perhaps); second, building an AC transfer station is costly and they are big beasts; third, because of the above, there is really very little incentive for anyone (much less a lot of people) along the way to tap in and pull in some power.

The HQ line is a great case study. Anyone who is inclined can read the FERC proceedings and see a lot of objections that argue (sometimes persuasively) that what this model is doing is returning to the kind of pre-deregulated private model that was supposedly repudiated in vivid manifestations like the California crisis.


Joseph —

Maybe it’s just a matter of semantics — but in today’s world of renewables and sustainable energy, my point is that the energy source that drove the steam cars was just as fossil-fuel based as the fuel that is/was used in internal combustion engines. Perhaps you (unintentionally) hit one of my hot buttons. ;^)

Another point that I could have made is that while there absolutely were steam driven, and for that matter, electric cars (my great-aunt had one in Chicago in the 1920s) back in the day, by the 1910’s the internal combustion engine was supremely dominant, thanks to the success of Ford, Chrysler, Oldsmobile, etc. I don’t think there ever was a time when steam was even close to a dead heat, much less the great majority, which was implied in the words you chose: “its worth noting that once upon a time, almost all of the vehicles on the road . . .”. From the Stanley website: “Their self-imposed production limits of 1000 cars per year further hindered wide availability.” And the Stanley brothers were the most successful manufacturers of steam powered automobiles.

To operate a steam-powered car took foresight and three hands to operate it, as you can tell from the operational description on the website I shared. Relative to keeping and maintaining your own horse team it was still much less work, but an I-C car, especially once the starter motor came into service in the ’10s, was the end of the steam and the electric car. The original electric cars had very short ranges, and were slow (my Dad recalls riding in his aunt’s car, he says the top speed was about 25 MPH).

You would have been better off to compare electric cars to I-C cars, since they actually are resurgent — certainly more so than steam cars. The most recent “real” steam effort I am aware of was by Bill Lear (of 8-track and LearJet fame) when in 1969 he tried to enter a steam car in the Indy 500. I don’t know of anyone today seriously suggesting we go back to steam cars.

Like I said, the rest of the blog entry was excellent — it’s just that your “what’s old is new again” connection comparing steam automobiles to the shift back towards long-distance DC transmission lines (which is actually goes back at least 30 years, we have a north-south DC transmission line in California that’s at certainly that old) was a bit strained.

I think that what’s really more significant is that with a push towards renewable energy sources, the distance that electrical energy needs to be transmitted is going to go up (since the point of generation is going to be moving further and further from the point of use), and, once the distance to be covered hits 100 miles or so, DC becomes the right choice. Another reason to seriously consider DC is the greater system efficiency that can be achieved by staying in the DC domain if the original source of the electricity is inherently DC, as it is when it’s derived from PV sources.

— Roger

Dick Zeren

About “no benefit for those it passes.” The benefit of a transmission line to those it passes is that, in combination with the rest of the power system, it maintains the reliability (uptime) of power delivery.

And “attaching a spur line” requires a careful balance of system operations, safety and cost. Just attaching a line willy-nilly is a good way to discover the great beyond. We see it sometimes in developing countries where people steal electricity (at much lower voltages), at great risk to life.

Lew Perelman

I somewhat agree with Roger that mixing in the Stanley Steamer kind of distracted from the useful points you raised about DC transmission.

However, a new and potentially very useful approach to adding steam power to conventional IC engines is the Crower six-stroke design:

Also, I don’t think new, advanced external-combustion, closed-cycle engines should be written off. They offer a number of advantages, including the potential to use a variety of alternative fuels.

Lew Perelman

Joseph: You make a very interesting argument. I take it that the implication is that landowners along the right of way should receive financial compensation. I’m no expert, but there seem to be precedents for that in power line development.



The Wikipedia entry on the Crowley engine is interesting. If it is correct that Crowley failed to disclose prior art (as it says in the Wiki entry) then his patent is doomed.

As for landowners receiving fair compensation for right-of-way, that seems unlikely given the tendency for the powers-that-be to use eminent domain to grab land at very low cost. The argument that power lines are dangerous (not taking a stance here, just mentioning it) wouldn’t apply for a DC line — inherently there’s no line-frequency-dependent EMF, so there wouldn’t be a rationale for more compensation for any perceived health risks. Of course, if a 500 kV line dropped on your head, you’d be just as dead whether that line is carrying AC or DC power.

— Roger


Fair enough. I certainly see your points and they are well made. I guess the theme I was hitting on is how so much of what was old is new again.

We started with more of a distributed generation model and now we are looking at one again. We started out with a fleet of automobiles far less reliant on fossil fuels and we are trying to find our way back there again.

It brings the larger world into context I think. Is this fiscal crisis the end – as we are being told – of a post-industrial super-corporate military-industrial-technological complex that pushed for relentless consolidation, centralization, automation and economizing on scale?

And, as we build a clean energy economy, will we be looking to the same lessons to adopt and cultivate those killer aps that will become next generation technology giants, or are we going to see an entrepreneurial emergence of a whole host of “get over” technologies?

I’ve gone FAR afield now…but, I’ve enjoyed the conversation. Thanks!



Could you please provide a citation where someone’s claiming that the current fiscal crisis is the end of the the military-industrial complex? Insofar as I can tell, if anything the crisis has exacerbated the problem. The only well-funded organizations out there right now are those self-same M-I companies. Take a look at who’s hiring — it’s not the green-tech companies, it’s the folks making military hardware.

I don’t believe that a “clean-tech” economy is actually possible. Sure, we can have green collar jobs, lot’s of them, and I’ll cheer as each person puts on that collar. But the fact is that energy is a small segment of the overall economy, and will remain one. Sure, it impacts just about everything, but it is politically impossible for it to become dominant — the voters won’t tolerate it.

Look at today, and the mess we’re in politically, sending billions upon billions of dollars to countries that wouldn’t give us the time of day if it weren’t for the money we give them. Any stratgically-thinking manager of the country wouldn’t tolerate such a situation. But. The alternative is thinking in terms of “an era of limits”, as poor Jimmy Carter suggested in the late ’70s. Now his presidency is often thought of as “failed” because he told the truth. So instead we went on an orgy of “It’s Morning in America” thinking and pay the folks in the Middle East their money, rather than think about the long term and spend the money and resources it would cost to be energy independent. Happy talk and moonbeams won’t keep the lights on.

What’s needed today is Sustainable Earth thinking — long-term sustainable energy sources that don’t make the problem worse every day with their emissions. Do you see anyone in D.C. talking seriously about such a transition? I see a lot of lip service, but no rational plan. This is such a big job that market forces are _not_ going to get ‘er done.

Yes, we’re far, far afield from the original topic, but how we get to Sustainability from here is _the_ topic, and sometimes it’s necessary to touch base with what this is really all about.


Not as much precedent for “buying” right of way as it may seem, although it happens. Its happening right now with PSE&G’s Susquehanna Project in fact (

But, it is something utilities are loathe to do, because while they will recover the costs of construction for a transmission line, regulators typically won’t give them the right to recover for “mitigation” costs like that.

For example, on a recent Boston-area project, the local utility decided to build their line entirely underground. They had to fight to get compensation for the full cost and show the necessity for the UG choice. But, they did not get permission to pass through $10M in costs for a local road beautification project that was added as mitigation.

Long and short of the DC story for me is that project critics, abutters and others are savvy. They read the latest developments and follow the technology. The first question now on a project is going to be: are you going AC or DC? If AC, the responses will be stock: EMF concerns, tower height, etc. And…why aren’t you going DC to mitigate these risks?

If the answer is DC, however, they may ask: what’s in it for us?

Dick Zeren

Re “pre-sold” DC, to create the “Super Grid” linking major renewables source areas (ND, SD, Wyoming for wind, say) to load areas (Chicago, Seattle) probably requires DC. The key (and the reason for the current structure) is that the large capital costs have to be recovered or the investment will not come (Even the government’s investment in Bonneville and TVA have had a significant return!). The overall capital cost could include multiple taps, recovering the “extra” capital in fees charged for transport to that point.

Even now, the DC line moving power from the Dalles to SoCal add significant power shared across the CA-NV AC grid, for example. Yes, Oregon is left out, but it gets Bonneville production, and cheaper SoCal production in low water years, so this isn’t cut and dry.

We need to carefully balance the benefits and costs. Compensation folks for a DC line that “bypasses” them makes sense. Sine the lines are usually interstate, maybe FERC should have control, withjin these kinds of parameters, not local-interest regulators.

Lew Perelman

Roger et al,

I don’t know the nitty-gritty on this as well as Joseph seems to. But my googling turned up this example of a compensation plan for the Montana-Alberta Tie project:

Now compensation for economic losses, as suggested in the latter, is a different thing from gain-sharing for a DC line in the sort of case Joseph raised, where landowners along the corridor get no benefit from power line across their property. What I was suggesting is that a socially equitable venture would offer to share some of the gains of the project with the corridor landowners who otherwise would get no benefit from the DC project.

Roger’s comment seems to suggest that eminent domain could be used to force the landowners to accept the project whether they like it or not, without much if any compensation. I don’t know, but I imagine that might be so. If so, it seems reminiscent of the famous (notorious?) New London CT ‘Kelo’ case where eminent domain was used to take private property for private, rather than public development use. While that particular action ultimately was upheld by the Supreme Court, the political backlash against that decision, from both the Left and the Right, was so intense that legislation subsequently prohibited that practice in a number of places.

I’m stretching the limits of my expertise here, but it seems to me that if DC transmission has substantial strategic/economic societal benefits, as Joseph suggests, then public policy can be adapted to support it.


Its a worthwhile discussion to have, especially in light of the proposed Reed and Bingaman proposals for FERC siting controls. On the subject of FERC’s unique place in the transmission discussion, its worth noting also that the link you posted is to a Canadian project where the power developers don’t have the backstop authority at a federal level that FERC can sometimes claim.

The question of adapting public policy is a very dicey one for me, especially in this context. I’m not sure how much I like the government picking winners and losers in the technological debates over how to convert/upgrade the grid. A lot of the subsidies and breaks given for certain types of renewable technologies — and those technologies that are excluded from them (i.e., GHG-free hydro espec.) — can range from nonsensical to politically partisan to locally protectionist to good old fashioned corporate giveaway.

Still, in the brave new world, it seems clear that the government will be picking winners and losers in the energy world: see WSJ from mid-week on nuke loan guarantees:

Thanks for joining the discussion!

Lew Perelman


I have lived in Washington for over 25 years; I heartily sympathize with your disdain for government attempts at ‘industrial policy.’ Sadly, Congress cannot resist the temptation to micromanage, especially under the current regime. The about of money spent on lobbying in Washington has doubled in the last couple of years, gushing since Obama’s election.

That said, the fact remains that the grid is a mess, and perhaps a conundrum. The pressure to expand the grid conflicts with analyses done after the big NE blackout of 2003 which showed that bigger scale and greater integration would lead to disproportionately bigger and more costly failures.

In that context, the issues you raised about direct current were new and interesting to me. I’m currently working on a paper on energy, climate, and technology for a client in Canada, so both the subject and the Canadian connection fit in with my current concerns (no pun intended).

While it didn’t come up here, I’ve also been looking into superconductor transmission — while that has been a long time coming, it now seems to be gaining some real traction.

In general, my bias is toward greater improvements in efficiency and more decentralized, distributed solutions. What we need broadly is greater infrastructure resilience and adaptability.

Anyway, thanks for bringing up this interesting discussion.

SJ Fernandez

Before I add my comments let me make two statements in the interest of full disclosure. The first statement is that from 1985 to 1994 the Idaho National Laboratory was operated by the Westinghouse Electric Company and I was taught the lessons of the “Current Wars” history from the viewpoint of the winning AC (Westinghouse) side. I never received equivalent historic re-education from the GE (Edison) DC side. The second disclosure is the DC-AC discussion is a traditional Blue-Green clash of resilience vs renewable insertion and most of my funding has as its objective assuring a resilient grid does not get lost in the arguments of alternative generation insertion.

My observation is that there are good solid reasons that the current bulk transmission grid is mostly AC with DC components providing specialty functions. I will list a few of these with my observations about how the issues can be framed from a public policy viewpoints.

1) DC power currently has a break even point of transmitting power for more than 300 miles before the power enters the distribution system. The reason is the step down in voltage requres exceedingly expensive substations that may require several acres of lay down site. This is compared to relatively inexpensive stepdown transformers for AC transmission lines that can be sited near the population centers. It takes the losses from AC over this distance to make up the costs in the DC substations. There are times when this makes sense, especially undersea cables. Great examples include cables from Norway to the Netherlands, BC to Vancouver Island, and overland cables to remote areas of China that extend to over 2000 km.

2) DC power can not be used until it reaches its final destination. Not a problem if you are transmitting across the North Sea. However, if the line passes through communities, say along the route from ND to Southern Califonia, substations cannot be built later in the Intermountain West to take advantage of the transmission lines. In this case it is analogous to a Superhighway with one one-way on-ramp and one one-way off-ramp. Diners and motels along the way see no benefit from the road coming through their town. For the subject DC line, Omaha sees no increase in power availability from the line coming through town. The argument that taps can always be added on is an argument used for AC bulk transmission.

3) DC is one way, AC is bi-directional. Power in our example would flow only from ND to So. California or — at best– power flows from ND to California in the summer and in the reverse direction in the winter. This is the scenario for the cited Califonia DC transmission line where power flows from the Pacific Northwest to California in the summer and the reverse direction in the winter. However, this California line is co- located with AC transmission lines to provide the off-ramps for portions of power (the local roads) while a portion of the power is placed on the express moving un-interruped to its final destination in the north or south depending on the season. Because power moves only in one direction, the DC transmission does not contribute to smart grid re-configuration for reliability that you find within the AC grid.

4) DC connects incompatible sections of the grid created by emergecies. When different parts of the grid are separated to isolate disruptions in one part of the grid and prevent them from spreading to other parts of the grid, they are connected by DC transmission lines. The stronger the connection (greater the power capacity) the more power is transmitted between asynchronous (out of phase) islands of the grid network. However, disruptions in ND are rapidly transmitted to the grid in California to be mitigated by actions on the West Coast. Transmitting these disruptions is a consequence of a less robust and resilient grid.

5) DC is more compatible with early super conductivity cable introduction. Super conductive cables are virtually loss free in DC applications. As a first introduction philosophy, DC transmission corridors that are amenable to underground superconductivity cables will reach their ROI targets sooner than an AC transmission system.

6) Strategic DC transmission corridors can reduce the demands on the existing AC transmission system. If centralized wind, solar, hydro, nuclear, etc. can be transmitted to a single interconnect access pont that through careful planning reduces the need to wheel power through the WECC region AC transmission system, the overloaded transmission lines we identified in our 2008 paper would look much different. However, strategic single point and one-way critical nodes become single points of failure. Single points of failure potentially create some new vulnerabilities and reduce margins against wide area transmission failure.

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