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Why Upgrading the U.S. Transmission System Is Tough

The national transmission system is old and needs updating—especially if the U.S. is to secure its electrical grid and realize its ambitious climate goals. But revitalizing the aging lines may prove more difficult than most think, according to CNBC.

What’s going on: The electrical grid isn’t being built quickly enough to meet demand forecasts. What’s more, it is not optimized to run on clean power sources.

  • “‘Right now, over 1,000 gigawatts worth of potential clean energy projects are waiting for approval—about the current size of the entire U.S. grid—and the primary reason for the bottleneck is the lack of transmission,’ Bill Gates wrote in a recent blog post about transmission lines.”
  • From 2013 to 2020, transmission lines grew at approximately 1% per year, not nearly fast enough to keep pace with consumer appetite.

Why it’s happening: With thousands of utility companies, 48 contiguous states and numerous, often competing interest groups in the mix, building new transmission lines is a difficult and time-consuming undertaking.

  • “‘The industry grew up as hundreds of utilities serving small geographic areas,’ [Grid Strategies Founder and President Rob] Gramlich told CNBC. ‘The regulatory structure was not set up for lines that cross 10 or more utility service territories. It’s like we have municipal governments trying to fund an interstate highway.’”
  • What’s more, energy companies that build new lines require a return on their significant investment—but the cost-recovery mechanisms can vary and are frequently problematic.

Success is possible: Despite the challenges in expanding the transmission system, there are some success stories.

  • “The Ten West Link, a new 500-kilovolt high-voltage transmission line that will connect Southern California with solar-rich central Arizona, and the $10.3 billion Long Range Transmission Planning project that involves 18 projects running throughout the [Midcontinent Independent System Operator] Midwestern region … ‘are good examples of what we need to do everywhere,’ Gramlich told CNBC.”

The NAM’s take: “The federal government has made monumental commitments to manufacturers through the NAM-supported bipartisan infrastructure bill,” said NAM Director of Energy and Resources Policy Chris Morris.

  • “Manufacturers now need the government to get dollars out the door, shovels to break ground and streamlined permitting processes. This will allow them to continue what they do best: innovate, deploy modern technologies, create manufacturing jobs and boost the economy.”
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