Transmission Lines Needs Money, & Freedom, to Let Jobs Bloom

A new study says the U.S. should be spending $12 billion to $16 billion a year to upgrade its major transmission power lines, and this investment could add hundreds of thousands of new jobs in the U.S. That is, if someone could do something about the ten-year waiting list for new transmission power line projects.

That’s the gist of a new study sponsored by the WIRES NEMA trade group, and developed by Brattle Group analysts (PDF), aimed at getting Congress to do something about the country’s transmission backlog. The study says that investing in new transmission lines could “annually support” 130,000 to 250,000 full-time jobs in the clean power sector, as the necessary transmission lines would connect utility-scale clean power plants to the cities that will use the power.

President Barack Obama has called for 3,000 miles of new transmission lines to help double renewable energy capacity by 2012. A consortium of Eastern power grid operators said last year that transmission to carry wind power from the Midwest to the East could cost $80 billion over the next 15 years or so.

Beyond cost, building miles of new transmission lines across property (with various private and public owners) and across several state borders can be a regulatory nightmare. A previous NEMA report (PDF) likened transmission corridor siting to a game of “Chutes and Ladders,” complete with a flow chart that showed just how many agencies a project has to get through to be built.

Some recent history on transmission projects illustrates the point. In Texas, where lots of wind power lacks transmission to get its green power to market, utilities have had to route transmission lines around property boundaries, adding costs. In California, the $1.9 billion Sunrise Powerlink project by San Diego Gas & Electric just broke ground after five years of environmental opposition, giving little time to build the lines to carry the 300 megawatts of solar power the utility has promised to buy from projects in the Imperial Valley.

What Congress might do to make transmission lines easier to build remains to be seen. One step might be more support from the Department of Energy, which in February gave out its first loan guarantee for a $343 million transmission project linking Las Vegas and Reno.

At the federal level, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is asking for more power over siting and cost-allocation of new interstate transmission lines — a proposal opposed by some utilities. One big question is how costs should be split between everyone whose property is crossed or affected by the new lines and those regions that benefit from the power they deliver.

In the meantime, China is way ahead of the U.S. on new transmission lines, with tens of billions of dollars going into next-generation, high voltage direct current (HVDC) lines to serve as a renewable power backbone for the country.

Image courtesy of Jacashgone via Creative Commons license.