Infrastructure is not sexy. This is just one of those facts of life that will not change. It is made to become invisible, blend in and disappear. Think about it, after their completion, cell phone towers, rooftop solar and transmission lines quickly become part of the background. It’s just too bad no one notices this underlying framework that is so necessary to the operation of society. If people were more aware of it, it might be easier to add to it, such as adding transmission infrastructure for connecting renewables to the grid.

Renewables

In the last decade, worldwide renewable generation has exploded onto the grid with exponential growth, but the transmission infrastructure has lagged behind. On one hand, there has been a great deal of effort to encourage the growth of this resource. There have been tax credits, low interest rates and preferential regulations, and these have worked. On the other hand, there has been very little in the way of incentives for transmission. It’s no wonder there are times when grid operators have to dump energy produced by wind turbines on windy days because regional power systems cannot handle it. Therein lies the problem.

Several factors are at work here. One factor is the old real estate mantra — location, location, location. Some of the best locations for wind are extremely remote. In some cases, this remoteness may be many miles from the closest transmission. If a line is nearby, chances are it was built to bring power to the rural area. It was never sized to carry large amounts of power out of the area.

There is also the issue of how quickly a wind farm or group of wind farms can be constructed, as opposed to how long it takes to build a transmission line. While a mega wind farm typically can be designed, built and commissioned in less than a year, a transmission line project has to follow regulations and procedures that were developed in the 20th century, for the most part, and that can take 10 years for the same process.

Renewables

Catch-22

The solution appears to be simple: build more transmission lines. But is it that simple? Traditionally, new transmission lines cannot be built unless there is a proven need for them. To prove that need, there is usually a signed interconnection agreement, but wind farms make it a little more complicated. The wind farm cannot be built without transmission, and a utility cannot build transmission without the wind farm. It is the classic Catch-22 scenario.

This does not mean utilities are not adding new transmission infrastructure to the global grid for all of this renewable generation; they are, but it is not happening fast enough to avoid problems. One example of the industry’s commitment to building transmission is the latest report from the Edison Electric Institute (EEI). In its “Transmission Projects: At a Glance” report for 2014, EEI states member utilities are planning on spending approximately US$46 billion on projects supporting the integration of renewable resources into their transmission systems. That figure represents 76% of the approximately $60.6 billion budget members are anticipating expending in the next 10 years.

Renewables

Renewables

For the actual construction figures in 2013, look at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC’s) “2013 Energy Infrastructure Update.” This update is a snapshot of the entire energy industry for the year. One section details what happened in regards to transmission. In 2013, FERC reported an increase of 3,295 miles (6,317 km) of transmission lines. It also projected the addition of 12,980 miles (20,889 km) by the end of 2015 based on filings, but FERC is doubtful that much will be built. With normal delays and such, FERC said it was more likely the number would be reduced to about 4,500 miles (7,242 km) of completed transmission.

It would be great if all 12,980 miles of new transmission were built in the next year and a half, but FERC is probably correct in its assessment. It would be even better if a lot more than that amount was actually built, but building new power lines is a complicated process. It seems, too, the bigger the project, the more chance of something happening to slow it down. That is why it is so exciting that a new trend has been quietly taking place in the industry.

Renewables