The Platform

View over the Gulf of Mexico. (NASA)

The transmission network is the backbone of the electric grid. It represents a major and highly visible component of critical infrastructure.

In the labyrinth of America’s energy infrastructure, the transmission network stands as the towering backbone, a testament to human engineering, and a critical component in the quest for a modernized, resilient electric grid. Operating at vertiginous voltages ranging from 69 to 765 kilovolts, these lines facilitate a flow of power that dwarfs what is possible through the more modest distribution networks, delivering electricity across a vast network of approximately 400,000 miles that stitches the country’s major generating units to the fabric of daily life.

The landscape of these transmission lines, predominantly a tableau of towering structures crisscrossing the land, occasionally dips beneath the earth’s surface or weaves under the sea, connecting the nation’s lifeblood of electricity from bulk substations to the urban and rural outposts of civilization.

The watershed moment came in 2021, when bipartisan resolve crystalized into the monumental infrastructure bill, earmarking $65 billion towards fortifying the grid. This legislative pivot is not just an investment in metal and wire but a blueprint for a future where the grid is not only more robust and adaptable but also primed for an era of clean energy. The forces shaping this evolution are multifaceted—technical, financial, social, and deeply political—demanding a nimble approach to strategy and an eye for the long game.

Three pillars underpin the imminent transformation of the grid: the imperative to rejuvenate aging infrastructure, the quest for heightened reliability and resilience, and the overarching drive towards facilitating the transmission of lower-carbon energy. This transition is a dual-edged sword, necessitating not only a redesign and expansion of the transmission system but also ensuring that the shift to greener energy sources like wind, solar, and battery storage is seamlessly integrated.

Electrification looms large in this new era, particularly as we pivot towards electric vehicles (EVs) and seek to electrify other sectors like home heating. This transition will inevitably stress the existing distribution networks and necessitate upgrades to accommodate the additional load, especially as we race to install the infrastructure needed to power fleets of electric vehicles. The voice of experience, Don Kane, a senior electrical engineer, emphasizes the criticality of early, intelligent regulation to guide this shift, mitigating impacts and incentivizing the use of local renewable energy sources. The integration of vehicle-to-grid technologies further promises a symbiotic relationship between transportation and energy infrastructure.

“Ultimately, enough additional load will impact the transmission grid, especially in those locations already experiencing congestion during times of peak load. To minimize the inevitable impact on the T&D system, it will be extremely important early in the electrification transition to establish intelligent regulation and rate policy for proper guardrails and incentives,” said Kane. “For example, EV charging can be encouraged to, as much as possible, avoid the times of traditional system peak loads and be incentivized to leverage local renewable generation when available. Vehicle battery storage will also be able to support the grid during nontravel times using emerging vehicle-to-grid technologies.”

Yet, the demand surge from EV charging, potentially increasing state energy needs by up to 50%, presents a formidable challenge. It underscores the urgency for strategic planning and capacity augmentation to keep pace with the evolving energy landscape.

Simultaneously, the integration of distributed energy resources (DERs) like utility-scale wind and solar generation is propelling a significant uptick in transmission projects, a trend poised to escalate as renewable technologies become more cost-effective. Projections by the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the Department of Energy sketch a future rich in solar and wind capacity, potentially reaching up to 2,500 gigawatts by 2050, accompanied by a robust expansion in energy storage solutions.

Navigating this future, according to Kane, involves grappling with a complex interplay of technical and political factors, underscoring the enormity of the task at hand for grid planners. The journey towards an electrified, sustainable future is fraught with challenges but illuminated by the promise of a grid that not only powers but also protects and propels the nation forward.

This article originally ran in the March issue of Line Contractor magazine, a publication of the National Electrical Contractors Association Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

While advocating for systemic change over 4 decades, Gordon Feller has been called upon to help leaders running some of the world’s major organizations: World Bank, UN, World Economic Forum, Lockheed, Apple, IBM, Ford, the national governments of Germany, Canada, US – to name a few. With 40 years in Silicon Valley, Feller’s 300+ published articles cover the full spectrum of energy/environment/technology issues, reporting from more than 40 countries. Obama/Biden appointee to Federal comm. on innovation; Global Fellow at The Smithsonian; Winner: Prime Minister Abe Fellowship, Japan.