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The Worst Sort Of Gridlock

The national grid doesn't get nearly enough attention when people talk about energy policy. Maybe a sentence or two about how it needs to be improved, but that's usually it. So it's nice to see The New York Times' Matthew Wald get into the gritty specifics of how America's aging grid is hampering our ability to bring alternative-energy sources to the market—it's a fat roadblock in the way of generating a greater percentage of the nation's electricity from wind power:

Achieving that would require moving large amounts of power over long distances, from the windy, lightly populated plains in the middle of the country to the coasts where many people live. Builders are also contemplating immense solar-power stations in the nation’s deserts that would pose the same transmission problems.

The grid’s limitations are putting a damper on such projects already. Gabriel Alonso, chief development officer of Horizon Wind Energy, the company that operates Maple Ridge, said that in parts of Wyoming, a turbine could make 50 percent more electricity than the identical model built in New York or Texas.

“The windiest sites have not been built, because there is no way to move that electricity from there to the load centers,” he said.

The basic problem is that many transmission lines, and the connections between them, are simply too small for the amount of power companies would like to squeeze through them. The difficulty is most acute for long-distance transmission, but shows up at times even over distances of a few hundred miles.

The real problems here are political, not technical—or even economic. (The Energy Department says it would cost $60 billion for a "high-voltage backbone" that would allow wind to generate 20 percent of the nation's electricity—and that would be spread out over many years and millions of customers.) Congress is reluctant to handle improvements directly because the states have jealously guarded their authority over their local grids, and many states, for their part, have no incentive to make upgrades to their grids that would mainly benefit wind farms elsewhere—the best wind, for instance, is all up in North Dakota and South Dakota.

Wald notes that the 2005 energy bill gave the Energy Department greater authority to step in, but federal officials are already getting pushback for being "too aggressive." And even that's just the start: Upgrading the grid requires coordination among multiple states, dozens of power-line companies, hundreds of landowners, all those environmentalists who don't want to see transmission lines snaking through desert preserves… It's not impossible to do, but far from simple. Alternatively, if there was a better way of storing the electricity generated by wind, it would take a lot of pressure off the existing grid—power could be transmitted when lines are less congested and stored near to where it's needed. But we're still a technological leap or two behind that point.

--Bradford Plumer