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3 steps for unclogging the transmission bottleneck in the US

By Anthony Allard
14-06-2023 | 6 min read

We all know that climate change is upon us, and the clean energy transition is gaining momentum here in the U.S.

Just a few years ago, conversations about EVs were almost non-existent. Today, we see that most car manufacturers are either ramping up production of EVs and many already have plans to completely stop producing internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles in the future.

It’s fascinating to see the speed at which these changes are happening. Wind power development, both onshore and offshore, is proceeding at a dizzying pace, encouraged by government incentives and a strong business case. Similarly, development of solar power generation, both residential and utility-scale, continues to accelerate. 

More transmission capacity is critical to combatting climate change

The drivers behind these trends are equally clear. Climate change is the threat of our times, and organizations and institutions - corporations, governments, and industries – have set ambitious goals to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to combat it.

A critical dimension to this transition is to move away from the use of fossil fuels to produce electricity, relying increasingly on carbon-free energy sources such as wind, solar and hydropower.

In short, the trends in favor of renewable energy development are almost universally positive. Almost. But some of the key challenges related to accelerating the energy transition in the United States still remain.

How can we overcome them?

What steps do we need to take collectively as a nation to address them?

I’d like to share my perspective on this issue. 

1. Unclogging the pipeline

One key bottleneck that threatens to slow adoption of renewable energy and even scuttle development plans in some instances is long-distance, high-capacity electrical transmission, or more specifically, the lack of it.

I recently had the opportunity to contribute to a piece for the Wall Street Journal, “Powering a Greener Future” which explored the urgency to address climate change and the vital role power grids, particularly transmission networks, will play in addressing this critical challenge.

The situation in the U.S. is particularly problematic, because there are often many different jurisdictions that need to sign off on such projects, and getting alignment can be difficult due to the diversity of priorities among the various stakeholders.

Fortunately, we have seen some very positive developments recently, with important transmission projects achieving important milestones and moving forward, such as the SunZia Transmission Project, and the Intermountain Power Project, both of which will serve the Southwest and California (and for which Hitachi Energy will be high-voltage, direct current (HVDC) technology supplier). We are also proud to be the HVDC technology partner for Champlain Hudson Power Express, and Hydro-Quebec’s Chateauguay project, both high-capacity transmission links bringing clean hydropower from Canada to New York City.

As exciting as these projects are, however, they have been in the works for many years, and such initiatives can easily take a decade or more to get off the ground.

If we are to effectively address climate change, we need to do much more, and we need to do it faster.

There is an urgent need to modernize our power grids to make them more flexible and responsive, and better able to incorporate variable renewable power sources, which are currently being developed throughout the country. We also need to increase grid capacity overall to meet growing demand as we electrify more areas of the economy, like transportation, manufacturing, and more.

Providing more transmission capacity, reaching a greater diversity of locations, is a necessary ingredient in this complex recipe.

2. Leveraging existing advanced technologies

In this situation, technology is not a limitation.

HVDC technology (which was originally pioneered by Hitachi Energy in the 1950s!) can move huge amounts of power over long distances, with very little loss. This technology is also very versatile, able to be deployed underground and underwater, along train lines or highways or other existing rights of way, as well as over traditional suspended power lines. This makes it a great solution in areas where establishing new transmission corridors or building out highly visible, unsightly infrastructure may not be very attractive options.

There are also things we can do to increase the capacity of existing systems, such as alternating-current (AC) lines that are widely deployed throughout the country.

Power quality solutions of various kinds can increase the amount of power such systems can carry quite dramatically, enabling utilities to take better advantage of their existing transmission investments.

We recently worked with Minnesota Power to increase the capacity of its AC transmission bringing hydropower from Manitoba to Minnesota to help meet their goal of delivering 50% renewable energy to their customers. Similar projects are underway with customers across the U.S., and around the world.

3. Accelerating national planning

One of the keys to removing the transmission bottleneck is more comprehensive planning. We do not currently have a high-level national plan to guide transmission development in the U.S. In a recent article for Windpower Engineering & Development magazine I make the case that such a plan could be an invaluable tool for accelerating the expansion of transmission capacity.

Today, we have processes in place that tend to place local interests over broader, national objectives. This can create insurmountable challenges for some projects which are designed to make it easier to share power between different regions of the country, or even across national borders. This kind of sharing is essential to addressing the variability of renewable energy sources and limit the impact of local supply disruptions caused by extreme weather.

We have recently seen some meaningful steps toward this goal at the federal level, and we have also seen some states take a very proactive stance toward carbon reduction, including the development of transmission capacity. Still, a greater a collective focus on prioritizing national planning could be extremely productive. At a minimum, we should be encouraging greater collaboration between states to create links that support greater flexibility and resiliency.

Power grids have always been critical infrastructure.

As such, they have an essential role in supporting the clean energy transition. Future grids must be more flexible, adaptable and resilient than ever before, while meeting growing demand for electricity across industries of all kinds, while also reducing overall carbon footprint dramatically. These are very ambitious goals.

Without more robust, farther reaching transmission systems, progress in meeting these goals this transition is at risk of stalling.

As an industry, we must re-double our efforts to reduce the transmission bottleneck to ensure that the power can keep flowing where and when we need it. 

Aerial view of power line pylon in mountaineous area in Switzerland, Europe

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Anthony Allard
Managing Director United States; Head of North America

Allard was most recently chief operating officer of BECIS, a distributed energy solution provider in Singapore. Having spent most of his career in the power sector at GE and Alstom in the U.S., he held several executive-level positions, including general manager and board member for GE Prolec Transformers in the U.S. He was also general manager for the GE-XD High Voltage Products joint venture (JV) and spent 10 years working for Alstom Grid in both North America and the Americas in Strategy and Operations management roles.