Coal and transmission

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Electric power transmission or high voltage electric transmission is the bulk transfer of electrical energy, from generating power plants to substations located near population centers. A transmission grid is a network of power stations, transmission circuits, and substations, sometimes called simply the grid.[1] The U.S. electricity grid comprises about 527,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines that stretch across the country, most installed decades ago.[2]

Many energy analysts argue that to create a new clean energy economy with more solar and wind energy, thousands of miles of new transmission lines must be built across the nation: in many remote areas of the country where solar and wind is plentiful, no power is harnessed from the land because there aren't enough transmission lines to carry the electricity.[3] But finding suitable locations to place the lines is complicated without a federal body to oversee planning, and some energy experts argue that in the absence of a broader national effort to encourage cleaner fuels, currently proposed "smart grids" and expanded transmission lines will do little to reduce consumption of fuels like coal that contribute to climate change, because that would make currently "cheap" electricity like coal available in more parts of the country and squeeze out generators that are more expensive but cleaner.[4]

Grid and baseload power

How the Lights Stay On

Electric power transmission is distinct from the local wiring between high voltage substations and customers, which is typically referred to as electricity distribution. Transmission lines, when interconnected with each other, become high voltage transmission networks.[1]

A transmission grid is a network of power stations, transmission circuits, and substations. Energy is usually transmitted within the grid with three-phase alternating current (AC), and is typically referred to as power grids or sometimes simply as the grid. North America has three major grids: the Western Interconnection; the Eastern Interconnection; and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (or ERCOT) grid. Historically, transmission and distribution lines were owned by the same company, but over the last decade many countries, including the US, have introduced market "deregulation" reforms that have led to the separation of the electricity transmission business from the distribution business.[1]

Baseload (also base load, or baseload demand) is the minimum amount of power that a utility or distribution company must make available to its customers, or the amount of power required to meet minimum demands based on reasonable expectations of customer requirements. Baseload values typically vary from hour to hour in most commercial and industrial areas. The unvarying (or slowly varying over many hours) portion of the electric demand is known as the base load and is generally serviced by large facilities of scale. Such facilities might be nuclear or coal-fired power stations, or hydroelectric, while other renewable energy sources such as concentrated solar thermal and geothermal power have the potential to provide base load power. Renewable energy sources such as solar photovoltaics, wind power, wave power, and tidal power are, due to their intermittency, generally not considered "base load" but can still add power to the grid. Each baseload power plant on a grid is allotted a specific amount of the baseload power demand to handle. The base load power is determined by the load duration curve of the system. For a typical power system, the rule of thumb is that the base load power is usually 35-40% of the maximum load during the year.[5]

U.S. Grid

The U.S. grid comprises about 527,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines that stretch across the country, most installed many decades ago. 40 percent of all the energy used in the US is converted into electrons that are lost when they travel over transmission wires. To deal with this inefficiency and projected growth in electricity demand, the Obama Administration advocates a more reliable, efficient, responsive, and "smart" grid. President Obama has called a new energy agenda "absolutely critical to our economic future," and his stimulus package directed more than $40 billion toward that goal, more than half of that for grid-related projects.[6] The stimulus bill passed by the House includes $6.5 billion in credit to federal agencies for building power lines, presumably in remote areas where renewable energy sources are best placed, and $2 billion in loan guarantees to companies for power lines and renewable energy projects. The bill also includes $4.4 billion for the installation of smart meters — which, administration officials say, in combination with other investments in a smart grid, would cut energy use by 2 percent to 4 percent — and $100 million to train workers to maintain the grid.[4]

Debate over updating the grid

In March 2009, the Sierra Club and 25 other environmental organizations laid out their vision for how to reform federal electric transmission policy to help promote a clean energy future in a letter to Carol Browner, assistant to President Barack Obama on energy and climate change issues. They argued responsible planning of electrical transmission lines and transmission reform must be part of a comprehensive clean energy policy, and that transmission policy reform must result in new lines that serve clean renewable resources rather than expand the carbon-intensive power generation. They expressed concern that electric transmission policy reform in advance of a comprehensive national climate policy can have the real but unintended effect of facilitating more, not less, greenhouse gas pollution, pointing to companies like American Electric Power and Allegheny Power that have proposed "green" transmission lines that would go directly to and from coal-fired power plants, crossing Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland, and helping to significantly expand coal generation. Similar projects are popping up across the western part of the United States.[7]

Some industry experts argue that the problem of making the grid greener goes beyond upgrading and expanding the existing power lines, as the grid was set up primarily to draw energy from nearby plants and to provide a steady flow of electricity to customers, and not intended to incorporate power from remote sources like solar panels and windmills, whose output fluctuates with weather conditions — variability that demands a more flexible operation. These experts say that the grid must therefore be designed to moderate demand at times when there is less wind or sun available — for example, by allowing businesses or residential customers to volunteer to let the local utility turn down air-conditioners in office buildings or houses, when hourly prices rise. They therefore advocate grid expansion and smart grids.[4] Environmentalists worry this is a ruse for expanded coal power generation.[7] They say grid expansion must be complemented by a price on emissions - a carbon fee from dirtier fuels - which is incorporated into the price of electricity.[4]

Role of FERC

According to the Institute for Local Self Reliance, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) creates barriers for local use of renewables, as FERC sees its primary goal as accelerating and enabling the long distance transmission of electricity, while many states and cities see their primary goal as maximizing in-state production of energy and the economic benefits that derive from that. FERC has asserted that it has preemptive powers to impose new, high-voltage transmission lines on states, although this has so far been denied by the courts. FERC's claim came from a section of the 2005 Energy Policy Act that gave FERC the authority to approve transmission lines in Department of Energy designated “National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors” if states did not act on proposals within one year. FERC took this to mean that it could approve any transmission line, even one that a state had rejected. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed in February 2009, ruling that FERC had overstepped its authority.

FERC has also encouraged a shift in the locus of transmission planning from local and state, to regional and national bodies, and has prohibited states from setting prices above the utility’s avoided cost – the price the utility says it must pay to get an additional kilowatt-hour of power – generally too low to attract investment in all but the least expensive renewable energy sources.

The Institute for Local Self Reliance also argues the grid system is a black box and developers only learn about potential interconnection costs once they initiate the slow interconnection process and have sunk significant money into site development.[8]

Grid projects

Project Mountaineer

In early 2010, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) approved Project Mountaineer, a series of west-to-east transmission lines. According to New Jersey Spotlight, the project originated in 2005, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission convened a conference of coal industry executives, utility officials and power grid operators in West Virginia for a "Conference on Promoting Regional Transmission Planning and Expansion to Facilitate Fuel Diversity, Including Expanded Uses of Coal-Fired Resources," one of a series of conferences the federal agency had been putting on to find ways to increase the production of electric-generating capacity. The conference led to the Susquehanna-Roseland transmission project, which cuts through the heart of the New Jersey Highland. It was also there that the president of PJM Interconnection, the operator of the regional power grid, talked about Project Mountaineer and using PJM'’s regional transmission expansion planning process to develop a “transmission superhighway” to deliver "low-cost" coal resources.[9]

To opponents of the project, the transcript deflates arguments by PJM, Public Service Electric & Gas (PSE&G) and other transmission line advocates that expanding the power lines is needed to avoid reliability problems on the regional grid. According to Kevin Pflug, an attorney for the Eastern Environmental Law Center: "Project Mountaineer, the power companies’ overarching plan of attack, will do nothing more than line the pockets of power industry executives while doing environmental damage to our nation’'s National Parks,”" he wrote in a brief to the National Park Service, where the project is now pending.[9]

PSE&G, one of the project’s prime developers, argued Project Mountaineer had nothing to do with its Susquehanna-Roseland expansion. Karen Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Newark utility, said the transmission project is intended to bolster reliability and not meant to import any specific type of electricity into the region. That view was also expressed by the Board of Public Utilities (BPU) when it approved the project. PSE&G’s Johnson said PJM identified the need for a transmission upgrade in 2007, and reaffirmed that need in 2008 and 2009, and still expects reliability problems to exist in 2012.[9]

The $750 million New Jersey project is being reviewed by the National Park Service because a portion of the 45-mile transmission line cuts through lands it administers, including the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation area and the Appalachian Trail. The service is preparing a draft environmental impact statement, which is expected to be released next year. The service also has prepared a number of alternative routes but has yet to study the option favored by project opponents: the No-Build Alternative. In his brief, Pflug argued a “careful examination of emerging trends in the energy industry will reveal that applicants can satisfy peak demand without expanding the transmission line, and that the reliability concerns cited by the power companies are nothing more than public-relations spin to justify their goals of financial gain.”[9]

Instead of constructing the transmission line, opponents urged the National Park Service to study whether the growing use of demand response -- programs designed to have large users of electricity reduce consumption during times of peak demand -- and energy efficiency measures could be a viable alternative to expanding the transmission line. Opponents also contended that previous demand projections supposedly backing the need for the expansion failed to include new power generation projects that have been proposed, including one to generate 1,000 megawatts of power from offshore wind farms off the Jersey coast. They also noted the reliability concerns focused on less than two dozen days in the summer during times of peak demand, and even those may be overblown.[9]

August 2010: Ameren to build new transmission lines

In August 2010, major Midwest utility Ameren said it had created a new subsidiary to build transmission lines in Missouri and Illinois that will bring more wind power onto the grid – not to mention coal power. Saying that it was encouraged by a law enacted in June 2010 in Illinois that is supposed to streamline the approval process, Ameren said it had $3 billion in potential new power lines in its sights. "Financing will be easier to secure under this new structure," said Maureen Borkowski, who was named president and chief executive of the new subsidiary, the Ameren Transmission Company. The Midwest Independent System Operator, the grid within which Ameren lies, has 5,000 megawatts of wind projects that want to be connected, she said. If wind is added to the grid in large quantities, the company’s 64,000-square-mile territory will become a thoroughfare for that energy, she said. In addition, Ameren’s projects would connect to two planned coal plants — Futuregen and the Taylorville Energy Center — as well as the Prairie State Energy Campus. And the lines would link to Ameren’s existing Grand Tower plant on the Mississippi River, which was built in 1924 to run on coal but now uses natural gas.[10]

Governors oppose transmission expansion

On May 4, 2009, nine Governors of New England and Mid-Atlantic states (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, and Virginia) submitted a letter to Congressional leaders outlining their opposition to recent proposals for projects to transmit electricity from the Midwest to the East Coast. According to the letter, these proposals present a threat to the development of wind energy resources on the East Coast, and could result in East Coast ratepayers paying for surplus transmission capacity or artificially inflated energy prices for Midwest renewables.[11]

CapX 2020

CapX 2020 is a proposed series of transmission lines linking the coal fields of central North Dakota proposed for Minnesota and North Dakota. Phase I will affect over 70,000 landowners. No CapX 2020 contains resources on CapX 2020, including maps and regulatory documents.

National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors

In 2005, a new federal statute gave the Secretary of Energy the authority to designate National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors. In addition, the statute provided the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission the power of eminent domain for transmission lines.[12]

Smart Grid

A "smart grid" is designed to deliver electricity from suppliers to consumers using two-way digital technology, applying sensing, measurement, and control devices to communicate information about grid condition to system users, operators, and automated devices, with the goal of being able to respond to changes in grid condition. It overlays the electricity distribution grid with an information and net metering system. Smart meters may be part of a smart grid, but alone do not constitute a smart grid. The smart grid is being promoted by many governments as a way of addressing energy independence, global warming, and emergency resilience issues.[13]

DOE funding for smart grid

In November 2009, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) awarded $620 million for "smart grid" demonstration projects for 32 projects across 21 states. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has said the projects would help build a more efficient, more resilient electric grid and would help incorporate more renewables into the power supply. Interactive grids have been in the works for years, but the awards are the largest total funding yet awarded by DOE.[13]

Of the $620 million, $435 million will go to 16 projects to improve real-time communication. They will develop sensing and control devices to monitor electricity flows and help avoid outages. Some projects will develop "smart meters" and other in-home systems designed to let consumers see real-time power prices. About $185 million will go to projects to develop large-scale energy storage, including battery systems, flywheels, and compressed air energy systems. The awards come from DOE's $36.7 billion share of the stimulus program. The projects include private sector investment of some $1 billion in addition to the federal funds.[13]


In June 2010, the Maryland Public Services Commission rejected a rate increase proposed as part of an $835 million plan by Baltimore Gas and Electric to install "smart meters" and a new communications network. The initial decision jeopardized a $200 million Energy Department grant award under President Barack Obama's 2009 stimulus package. Similar utility rate increases for smart grid projects have been denied in other states. All stakeholders agree that improvements to the grid are needed, but there is considerable controversy over whether the utility-proposed methodology benefits consumers or acts as a structural impediment to more fundamental reform.[14]

August 2009: Britain funds smart grid cities

In August 2009, Britain announced it will create up to four "smart grid cities" after the energy regulator set aside £500m from customers' utility bills to start rewiring the nation's electricity system. The idea is to start an overhaul of the aging electricity grid, which is centralised and depends on large fossil fuel powered plants, and make it more localised using more renewable forms of generation. Mini "smart grids" will be built that will be able to handle more unpredictable large volumes of power from intermittent wind farms. The grids will also make it easier for households that have their own micro-generation – such as solar panels on their roofs – to supply electricity back to the grid. Smart meters will be fitted in homes, which are better able to manage demand unpredictable supply peaks from renewable forms of generation, such as wind and solar power.[15]

James Hansen advocates electric grid improvements

Dr. James Hansen: A Low-Loss Grid and a Carbon Tax

In a letter to President Obama, NASA scientist James Hansen argued for electric grid improvements as a crucial step for tackling climate change, behind energy efficiency and renewable energy: "The national electric grid can be made more reliable and 'smarter' in a number of ways. Priority will be needed for constructing a low-loss grid from regions with plentiful renewable energy to other parts of the nation, if renewable energies are to be a replacement for coal."[16]



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "A Primer on Electric Utilities, Deregulation, and Restructuring of U.S. Electricity Markets" (pdf) (2002-05). United States Department of Energy Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP). Retrieved on December 27, 2008. 
  2. Brendan I. Koerner, "Power to the People: 7 Ways to Fix the Grid, Now" Wired, March 23, 2009.
  3. "Power Hungry: Reinvisioning Electricity in the U.S." NPR, April 2009.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Matthew Wald, "Hurdles (Not Financial Ones) Await Electric Grid Update" New York Times, February 6, 2009.
  5. Dr. Matthew Cordaro in conjunction with New York Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance (New York AREA), "Understanding Base Load Power. What it is and Why it Matters", October 7, 2008.
  6. Brendan I. Koerner, "Power to the People: 7 Ways to Fix the Grid, Now" Wired, March 23, 2009.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Bruce Nilles, "We need responsible planning for electrical transmission lines" Grist, March 25, 2009.
  8. John Farrell,"Why Developing Better Renewable Energy Isn’t Enough: Five Non-Technology Roadblocks to Faster Growth" Climate Progress, Sep 22, 2011.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 Tom Johnson, "Controversial Highland Transmission Line, a ‘Superhighway’ to Deliver Low-Cost Power?: Opponents point to conference transcript, arguing that power grid reliability is a smoke screen" New Jersey Spotlight, Sep. 23, 2010.
  10. Matthew Wald, "For Clean Power and Not-So, New Midwest Lines" NY Times, August 2, 2010.
  11. Coast Govs Transmission Ltr.pdf East Coast Governors Transmission Letter, May 4, 2009, accessed May 2009.
  12. "Obama's high-wire electric act," Christian Science Monitor, 1/28/09
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 "DOE Awards $620M for Smart Grid Projects" Clean Skies, November 25, 2009.
  14. "The Smart Grid's Struggle" Forbes, August 13, 2010.
  15. Tim Webb, "Ofgem plans 'smart grid cities' as it gears up to go green" The Guardian, August 3, 2009.
  16. Alex Steffen, "Jim Hansen's Letter to Obama" Worldchanging, November 24, 2008.

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