Opportunity on the Line: Transmission Remains Obstacle to Clean Energy

The electric power transmission network was not designed to penetrate lightly populated regions of the Upper Midwest and Great Plains, a region brimming with wind energy potential.  Instead, our grid was designed to connect large, individual generating units with discreet population centers. It is abundantly clear that those states with the greatest wind resources – and therefore the greatest development potential – are leaving a lot on the table when it comes to economic development and energy independence within their respective states. 

An examination of the transmission infrastructure now in place throughout the 10 states rated by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory as having the highest potential for wind development emphasizes this point. Lines of 400 kV or larger are needed in greater numbers if we are to commit to integrating significant amounts of wind power into our energy portfolio. Of the 37,736 miles of lines greater than 400 kV, only 2,348 – 6 percent - are located in the top 10 states for wind energy potential. Astonishingly, of the 3,710 miles of lines capable of carrying capacity greater than 600 kV, only nine miles are located in states that lead the nation in capacity potential. That’s good for less than 1 percent.  

While myriad solutions have been considered, two in particular present themselves as logical answers to one of rural America’s most pressing problems. More efficient use of infrastructure now in place is a critical first step, a goal made especially important as coal-fired power plants throughout the region continue to close. Commitment to an improved, expanded grid must come next. It is imperative that utilities come to terms with the situation at hand and begin to address the most obvious of the capacity shortfalls now stymieing development. 

The past two decades have witnessed a number of important reforms which collectively promise to change the way we plan the expansion of our electric grid and ensure access to the renewable resources we must depend on to meet current and future energy needs.  Ambitious expansion projects are now underway. However, any effort to better utilize our abundant wind resources will require us to go above and beyond what is now in place and make a commitment to rural economic opportunity both now and in the future.

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