High-voltage power lines crisscross the countryside. (Image: Mny-Jhee/Adobe Stock)

Today I’m thinking about the gap between what’s doable technically and actually getting that technology into the world. A few years back I was talking to someone about all of the great possibilities of renewable electrical resources for solving problems like reducing emissions, meeting increasing electricity demands, and protecting against power outages. His reply took me aback. He said, “Yes, but the problem is that the largest sources of solar, wind, and hydro power would need new transmission lines to bring that power to where it is most needed. And people in the states those lines will have to cross over will complain about having to support a huge infrastructure project that will not benefit them.” From then on, I realized that my focus on solving engineering problems was too narrow — we engineers have to consider broader real-world challenges as well.

Then, as if they were reading my mind, the New York Times printed an article about this very issue. “Tapping into the nation’s vast supplies of wind and solar energy would be one of the cheapest ways to cut the emissions that are dangerously heating the planet, studies have found … But many spots with the best sun and wind are far from cities and the existing grid. To make the plan work, the nation would need thousands of miles of new high-voltage transmission lines — large power lines that would span multiple grid regions.” (New York Times, June 12, 2023, “Why the U.S. Electric Grid Isn’t Ready for the Energy Transition”)

Although there is a lot of ongoing research and development for shoring up the electricity grid with new high-power technologies, for example, low-loss, high-speed, high-voltage switching technology. Or adding smart technology — see “Smart Grid for Stable, Reliable Electricity Supply.”

But all of these solutions, and many more like them, ignore the question of how to actually implement them on a large enough scale to have the needed impact.

Although we clearly need an integrated national approach, there is presently no central authority to plan and oversee the construction of long-distance power lines. There are three main sections to the U.S. power grid, the Eastern (east of the Rockies and part of northern Texas), Western (From the Rockies west), and ERCOT (most of Texas). According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (eia) , they “operate largely independently from each other with limited transfers of power between them.”

Within these three main sections of the grid, there are 12 different transmission planning regions , six of which are full Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs), while the remaining five planning regions in the West and Southeast are much looser associations of dozens of vertically integrated utilities.

According to the eia, “The actual operation of the electric system is managed by entities called balancing authorities. Most, but not all, balancing authorities are electric utilities that have taken on the balancing responsibilities for a specific portion of the power system.” These authorities coordinate the transfer of power among themselves.

After decades of work as an EE, SAE Media Group’s Ed Brown is well into his second career: Tech Editor. “I realized, looking back to my engineering days and watching all of the latest and greatest as an editor, I have a lot of thoughts about what’s happening now in light of my engineering experiences, and I’d like to share some of them now.”

In addition to the problem of decentralized control of the power system, according to the NY Times, “the kinds of longer-distance transmission lines that would transport wind and solar from remote rural areas require the approval of multiple regional authorities, who often disagree over whether the lines are needed or who should pay for them.”

The Interstate Highway System

There is an excellent historical example of how this kind of building-out and control of a network was achieved — the Interstate Highway System. It was proposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who signed into law, the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1956. The reasons for this were stated by General Lucius D. Clay, whom Eisenhower had appointed to come up with the plan:

“It was evident we needed better highways. We needed them for safety, to accommodate more automobiles. We needed them for defense purposes, if that should ever be necessary. And we needed them for the economy. Not just as a public works measure, but for future growth.” [Smith, Jean Edward (2012). Eisenhower in War and Peace. Random House, pp. 652-653]

These are not very different from the reasons for expanding the electric power grid. And the challenges were similar as well. Although the highways had to cross many states and a huge number of local jurisdictions, the Federal Government figured out how to work with the states to get it done. Although the highways are owned by the states in which they were built, they all must meet a uniform set of standards, that have been defined by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and the entire system is overseen by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

The Importance of Strengthening the Electric Power Grid

It’s not just the need for renewable energy that cries out for an expansion of the grid. How are we going to provide the huge energy capacity for the electrification of the transportation sector, for example?

And there are increasing challenges to the reliability of existing systems due to extreme weather events and wildfires. The NY Times article pointed out that “more capacity to transfer power between regions could help, so that if a storm knocked out power plants in one area, its neighbors could send electricity.”

In my opinion this is something that must be addressed as soon as possible because even if all of the management problems were solved today, it will take a long time to address the technical problems and the actual construction.