Transmission America

While Congress and President Obama dither over replenishing the nearly depleted Highway Trust Fund, a more fundamental part of America’s fabric is quietly being strengthened. While derelict bridges garner headlines, it is our fragile power grid that can inconvenience tens of millions of Americans when power goes out in a summer heat wave. The federal government is taking the lead as an Edison Electric Institute report says:

Recognizing the importance of transmission to the nation’s economy, security and quality of life, the Administration recently announced the first ‘Quadrennial Energy Review,’ building off of its Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future, instructing the heads of twenty-two executive departments and agencies to collaborate on a year-long review of transmission and distribution infrastructure.

The Edison Electric Institute report details the extensive private investment that is being made in the backbone of our economy. EEI reports:

In 2012, total transmission investment reached $14.8 billion (real $2012). We expect that increases in year-over-year total transmission investment by EEI’s members will have peaked in 2013 with estimated investment at approximately $17.5 billion (real $2012).

These transmission investments provide an array of benefits which include: providing reliable electricity service to customers, relieving congestion, facilitating wholesale market competition, supporting a diverse and changing generation portfolio and mitigating damage and limiting customer outages in extreme weather.

Obama goes long renewable energy

President Obama is putting some wind in the sails of the transformation of solar energy to an industrial scale. Lost in the pre-election frenzy in July was this announcement:

The Obama administration announced a plan on Tuesday to open public land in six southwestern states to speed up the development of solar energy, while blocking projects in areas deemed environmentally sensitive.

The plan allows for 17 zones covering about 285,000 acres of federal land in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. The administration wants to fast track development of large solar power generation plants that would provide electricity to homes and businesses through power grids.

America needs a smart grid

The latest item atop Congress’s list of stuff to haggle over is the transportation bill, legislation the Washington Post calls the “best bet for passage of a major jobs bill this year.” The threat of the expiration of authority to spend money from the Highway Trust Fund at the end of the month is motivating House and Senate leaders to reach a compromise in the coming days. Although there are certainly investments to be made in our transportation infrastructure that would contribute to America’s economic competitiveness, it’s a shame that our energy infrastructure has received such scant attention from lawmakers.

The national electrical grid is as important for economic growth, if not more so, than the national highway system or the privately owned router system that supports the Internet. As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Department of Energy funded several demonstration programs for increasing electrical system integration and reducing peak loads on the electrical grid. These efforts are commonly known as the “smart grid,” and this is where Congress needs to turn its attention.

Fort Collins, Colorado was chosen for a public-private smart grid project supported with DOE funding. Called FortZED, the project integrates five public and private institutions into a web that shares excess electrical generation during peak load periods. Some facilities, like the University of Colorado campus, have enormous backup diesel generators that can be powered up to add electricity to the system during times of peak demand. A local brewery and city facility have large solar-cell arrays that can also feed electricity back into the system.

America’s only economic boom

In an April 2008 study, the U.S. Geological Survey increased its estimates of the size of recoverable oil reserves in the Bakken Formation — an area stretching across Montana and North Dakota — by a factor of 25. The press release for the study said:

North Dakota and Montana have an estimated 3.0 to 4.3 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil in an area known as the Bakken Formation. A U.S. Geological Survey assessment, released April 10, shows a 25-fold increase in the amount of oil that can be recovered compared to the agency’s 1995 estimate of 151 million barrels of oil.

The Bakken Formation estimate is larger than all other current USGS oil assessments of the lower 48 states and is the largest “continuous” oil accumulation ever assessed by the USGS. A “continuous” oil accumulation means that the oil resource is dispersed throughout a geologic formation rather than existing as discrete, localized occurrences. The next largest “continuous” oil accumulation in the U.S. is in the Austin Chalk of Texas and Louisiana, with an undiscovered estimate of 1.0 billions of barrels of technically recoverable oil.

Planning a 21st century power system

Planning a 21st century power system

One of the biggest issues for America’s infrastructure is improving the national grid that moves electricity around the nation. From Wikipedia:

Historically, local governments have exercised authority over the grid and have significant disincentives to take action that would benefit states other than their own. Localities with cheap electricity have a disincentive to making interstate commerce in electricity trading easier, since other regions will be able to compete for local energy and drive up rates. Some regulators in Maine for example do not wish to address congestion problems because the congestion serves to keep Maine rates low.

In the US, generation is growing 4 times faster than transmission, but big transmission upgrades require the coordination of multiple states, a multitude of interlocking permits, and cooperation between a significant portion of the 500 companies that own the grid.

Mapping the energy picture

Energy is the lifeblood of our economy. Today the U.S. Department of Energy relaunched their website and published a beautiful set of interactive maps that show various dimensions of our energy production and consumption. Unfortunately, DOE did not make what I think would be the best map which would be a mash-up, by state, of production and consumption. It would be interesting to see which states are net importers and exporters. Calling Secretary Chu!

Have a more detailed look by clicking on the thumbnails below.

Solar energy potential

Energy production by state

Renewable energy production

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