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Plotting A National Grid Overhaul

Earlier today, I went down to the National Clean Energy Project conference, where an array of Democratic politicians,  administration officials, and energy bigwigs were discussing the need for a new, modernized, electric grid in the United States. (Panelists included Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, T. Boone Pickens, and Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott, among others.) It's a timely topic: As Pelosi put it, Congress's efforts to promote alternative energy sources like solar, wind, and geothermal "will all mean nothing if there's not a grid to transport it." North Dakota may be the Saudia Arabia of wind power, but that matters little if the electricity can't actually reach Chicago—and our present, rickety grid isn't up to the task. So that's an argument for a high-voltage, direct-current transmission "backbone" to carry all that electricity over long distances, plus smarter grid technology to help manage demand.

Anyway, for a nice summary of what was said at the event, see here. I just wanted to underline a few of the interesting remarks made. Energy Secretary Steven Chu reiterated that one of the long-term challenges with wind and solar power was, of course, storage. The fact that the wind and solar are intermittent isn't a huge deal when they provide just 2 percent of our electricity—but if we want to ramp that up to 35 percent (say), it's a pitfall. Chu suggested the United States start expanding its pump-hydro storage capacity and look into compressed-air storage, both of which could store energy for those times when the sun isn't shining and wind isn't blowing. He also noted that the electric grid needed "two-way flows," so that if you have, say, a building with solar panels generating more power than it needs at the moment, it can feed electricity out to other sources. The main bottleneck here, Chu said, was the lack of a single industry standard for this technology.

Chu also addressed an issue we've been following here on this blog—the fact that the Energy Department suddenly has to disburse billions worth of energy loans authorized by the stimulus bill, and has to do it quickly, despite the fact that its fledgling loan-guarantee office hasn't yet approved a single loan since it was created in 2007. Chu promised to reduce the time required to hand out energy funds "from years to months," and discussed the need for faster loan vetting. "We need to move with a sense of urgency." You can read more about Chu's proposed reforms here.

Back to the grid. New York Governor George Pataki argued that the main obstacle to new transmission lines was permitting. "Try to run a wire through someone's community," he said, "and that's about the most difficult thing you'll ever do." This is especially true if the wires are simply passing through the community en route to another state entirely. Pataki insisted that any high-speed transmission line needed "off-ramps" to share the electricity with towns on its path—the sort of thing that made interstate highways so popular, since every town wanted to be near one and reap the benefits. The snag here is that high-voltage direct-current lines aren't designed to have off-ramps—and adding them can be a costly engineering challenge. But if there aren't off-ramps, local governments will likely refuse to approve these projects. "You wouldn't even need to take a poll on this," said Pataki.

These sorts of disputes are why, at the event today, Reid announced that he would introduce a bill later this week giving the president even more power to designate "renewable energy zones," where the federal government would have clearer authority over citing and permitting if local governments are dragging their heels. How, exactly, this would work—and how Congress would avoid a brawl with state regulators—is still hazy, though. In 2005, the Energy Department received the power to designate National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors, in an early attempt to move along projects that had been stymied at the local level—but this authority hasn't yielded much progress to date (among other things, a federal court recently thwarted federal attempts to muscle through a high-voltage line in New York State). 

Reid's legislation, by the way, would come in addition to the just-passed stimulus package, which already contained $4.4 billion for "modernization of the electric grid" and $8 billion for transmission improvements. For those keeping score, that means the Senate Energy Committee is crafting both a national renewable-electricity portfolio (requiring utilities to get something like 25 percent of its power from solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, etc. by 2025) and a grid bill. (Bingaman estimated the bills could take "months.") Reid also noted that these measures would be separate from any climate legislation to cap carbon-dioxide emissions.

P.S. For anyone seeking more detail, see this new report by Bracken Hendricks of the Center for American Progress on what it takes to build a new nationwide electric grid. The two graphics below, taken from that report, give a nice "before/after" picture:


--Bradford Plumer