While electric demand has increased rapidly over the last decade, transmission capacity has continually dragged behind. The nation’s utilities have successfully built dozens of facilities to generate more and more power but have neglected to ensure that the delivery system is adequate enough to transport that energy. Too much strain on the system has caused catastrophic results, as evidenced during the blackout of 1965 and again more recently, in August 2003.
The transmission system became an ‘open market’ in the 1970s when new federal utility laws allowed utilities to get their power from the most economical source, which meant electricity would be transported across all areas of the nation – something the original power grid was not designed to do.
Combine that with the reluctance of utilities to improve transmission equipment – as it is not a revenue-generating investment – and political failures to provide incentives to improve the system and the outcome is what we are faced with today.
By 1999, transmission investment was nearly half the $5 billion it had been more than 20 years earlier, according to research by the Edison Electric Institute (EEI).
But, despite past setbacks, improving the transmission system has finally become a priority. Changes are now under way, thanks to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s separation of generation from distribution, which created Independent transmission System Operators (ISOs) and Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs), and also helped spawn transmission-focused organizations such as The Working group for Investment in Reliable and Economic Electric Systems (WIRES).
According to EEI, more than 7,000 miles of new transmission lines (230-kilovolt (kV) and up) are proposed to be installed through 2009 with a total of nearly 12,500 lines built between 2005 and 2014. This is almost a six percent increase in total miles over the 2005 to 2014 assessment period.
EEI research also shows that North American transmission systems are expected to meet reliability requirements in the near future. However, as customer demand increases and transmission systems experience increased power transfers, portions of these systems will be operated at or near their reliability limits on a more regular basis. These conditions can definitely have a negative impact on the overall bulk power system reliability and cause coincident failures of generating units, transmission lines or transformers.
Therefore, transmission capacity will once again be at a critical stage and the time for improvement will be imminent.
WIRES is dedicated to promoting investment in the North American electric transmission network by keeping state and federal decision makers as well as the public informed about the challenges facing the nation’s electrical system, and the environmental and efficiency benefits to customers and the economy gleaned from better planning and greater investment in transmission capacity.