Monday, May 1, 2017

Transmission, Part III: Alternative Solutions

By Joni Sliger, Energy Fellow
Distributed generation, like this solar facility in Hawaii,
could reduce the need for new transmission lines.
Credit: SunPower / NREL

Our electricity system depends on transmission infrastructure, and our clean energy future may well depend on the development of new and upgraded transmission lines. This blog series has explored the significance of the transmission system and one way (forming an RTO) to manage the system better for greater regional benefits. This final post explores three ways to advance a clean energy future while minimizing the need for new transmission investments.

1. Build Locally

One way to reduce the need for new transmission is to produce more electricity locally. Our current transmission system carries electricity to us from power plants that may be hundreds of miles away. While it may be desirable to build some lengthy transmission lines to reach distant renewable energy sources, the need for new lines can potentially be offset by siting power sources near demand.

One way to build local is to encourage distributed generation, such as rooftop solar. This requires encouraging individuals and businesses to produce their own renewable energy on-site. For example, in Oregon, one key policy driving rooftop solar is the Residential Energy Tax Credit. If the legislature fails to extend the tax credit beyond its 2017 sunset date, Oregon is likely to see fewer rooftop solar installations and more need for costly transmission investments.

2. Invest in New Technologies, like Ocean Energy

Ocean energy, including wave energy and tidal energy, is an under-developed resource that would enable much more local energy production along the coasts.  As I’ve discussed previously, over half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of a coastline. According to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, wave energy alone could feasibly meet almost a third of the U.S.’s energy needs. Oregon could build short transmission lines out to ocean energy facilities along its coast instead of building lines hundreds of miles long to reach out-of-state resources, like wind farms in Wyoming.

At the forefront of marine energy development, Oregon has enacted a policy position that recognizes the importance of ocean energy. In 2015, the legislature passed a law (now codified as Oregon Revised Statute § 757.811) to mandate that “any regional planning processes . . . adequately consider the transmission of electricity from ocean renewable energy.” While more research and development is needed to bring more ocean energy sources online, Oregon has taken one important step towards smarter transmission planning through this law.

3. Leverage Existing Infrastructure, like Railroads, for Transmission Lines

Electrifying the railroad system offers another way to develop the transmission we need while minimizing the cost and environmental impacts. Instead of paying for expensive siting procedures to, for example, minimize impacts on wildlife, we can leverage the existing railroad system by integrating new transmission lines into the railroads. Electric lines can carry more electricity than the trains need, allowing the railroads to serve as both a clean transportation strategy and a ready transmission solution.

A campaign called Solutionary Rail is advocating for railroad electrification as a way to revitalize rural communities, provide a ‘just transition’ for railroad workers needing employment as the industry moves away from predominantly shipping fossil fuels, and to provide the key transmission infrastructure we need to connect to distant renewable energy sources.  For example, the campaign is pushing first for the electrification of the BNSF Northern Transcon line between Seattle and Chicago. Electrifying this line could provide several benefits, including the transmission necessary for distant wind farms in Wyoming to reach power-hungry urban centers, like Seattle.

Electrified railroads are already a possibility; about half the rail lines in Europe are electric. Even just using existing railroad rights-of-way as a place to co-site transmission lines would facilitate an easier siting process. The U.S. should start looking to the future and invest, for the benefit of its environment, its economy, and its communities.

To attain a clean energy future, the U.S. needs to invest in its transmission system. By building locally, investing in new technologies like ocean energy, and leveraging existing infrastructure like railroads, we can build a better transmission system and a better world. 

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