Connecting the Electric Dots: The Rise of Transmission Lines

The anticipated boom in renewable electricity generation in the U.S. (solar, wind) has made electric grid upgrades and expansion a fashionable idea (some would say it’s a must). Those who see the grid as a network of rough and narrow highways that can’t handle a big surge in traffic have been able to convince regulators to approve projects to build out transmission lines with costs in the billions of dollars.

The hefty costs are also being used as an argument for limiting large clean power projects located in remote locations and to promote those that can nestle in corners of urban and suburban areas. For example, utility Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is looking for final approval of its 250 MW program to buy solar electricity from developers, and these distributed projects can be at most 20 MW in size.

“We think these smaller projects can get connected more quickly and get closer to” where electricity is consumed, said Dennis Sullivan, manager of competitive solicitation at PG&E, at a solar conference in Las Vegas last week. “We are hoping to get projects to market at a faster speed.”

Here are some of transmission projects across the country that broke ground or have gotten approval in the past week:

Sunrise Powerlink Project: The controversial, $1.9 billion transmission project by San Diego Gas & Electric broke ground after five years of regulatory battles and finally was approved. The plan is to stretch 117 miles of 500-kilovolt transmission lines from eastern California to the coastal hub. SDG&E says it needs the transmission line to help it meet the state’s renewable energy mandate, which requires 20 percent of an investor-owned utility’s electricity supply to come from renewable sources by 2010. The goal goes up to 33 percent by 2020.

SDG&E said Sunrise can accommodate 1,000 MW of electricity. The utility has signed contracts in the past six months to buy electricity from more than 300 megawatts of projects in Imperial Valley.

One Nevada Project: The federal Bureau of Land Management issued an environmental impact statement that says the 236-mile One Nevada project will not have a significant impact on wildlife. The 500-kilovolt transmission line will link NV Energy’s northern and southern territories for the first time and provide access to electricity from geothermal and solar power plants. Pricing for geothermal energy is cheaper, at around 8-10 cents per kilowatt hour, while solar is about 13 cents per kilowatt hour, said David Sims, director of project development at NV Energy, at a solar conference in Las Vegas last week.

The project was initially conceived in 1992 to export hydropower from Idaho to California. Now NV Energy is developing the project with LS Power, and the companies expect to start construction in 2011 and complete it in 2013, Sims said.

Greater Springfield Reliability Project: The Western Massachusetts Electric Co. broke ground on the $795 million Greater Springfield Reliability project, which includes a 39-mile transmission line between Ludlow, Mass., and Bloomfield, Conn. The project, which will include 345-kilovolt and 115-kilovolt lines, is pegged for completion in 2013.

Hereford-to-White-Deer Project: We’ve all heard about the dire need for new transmission lines in Texas to move all those wind power. The latest project to gain approval came from the Public Utility Commission of Texas, for a 91-mile line by Sharyland Utilities, which plans to spend $190 million for the 345-kilovolt line. Many of the local residents oppose the project, which is set to start construction early next year and end in 2012.

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Photo courtesy of Marion Doss