Energy Team Readies Major Transmission Study

Does secrecy imply important findings?

4 min read


A study of U.S. electricity transmission needs, done by an expert team under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), should be released roughly as this issue goes to press and will be available online [see "To Probe Further," below]. Organized like DOE's Post-Outage Study Team (POST), which examined the summer 1999 power failures [see "Restructuring the Thin-Stretched Grid," IEEE Spectrum, June 2000, pp. 43-49], the National Transmission Grid Study was launched last August but got going in earnest only after 11 September.

Because of the attacks, the three public hearings held around the country in late September may have been less eagerly attended than hoped, and participants may have been distracted. Certainly, infrastructure security moved higher up the agenda, and transmission congestion may not have come in for quite the priority concern expected.

In any event, the study team did its final work at a time when other key authorities were sounding many alarms about transmission. The North American Electric Reliability Council, the power industry's self-regulation organization based in Princeton, N.J., has said the nation "is at a crisis stage with respect to the reliability of transmission grids." In short, transmission lines in many parts of the United States are in danger of becoming overloaded and failing.

Issues other than reliability matter, too. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), already more aggressive under its new activist chairman and Bush confidant Pat Wood, issued a preliminary Transmission Constraint Study on 19 December. Chokepoints identified in the document increase costs to customers as well as undermining system reliability.

Focusing on events of the summers of 2000 and 2001, the FERC study group sought to evaluate effects of congestion--more current trying to pass a point in the transmission system than that point can handle--to demonstrate costs to consumers and stir policy discussion.

Congestion costs were calculated by looking at the uncongested and congested sides of transmission choke points, multiplying the price difference by the energy transmitted across the bottleneck, and adding the cost of the extra energy produced on the congested side to replace whatever was blocked by the bottleneck. The FERC group then listed and aggregated those costs [see table below].

The conclusion: congestion had cost consumers an extra US $1 billion and more during those two summers alone. Fixing 16 bottlenecks by adding transmission would cost $12.6 billion, in the group's estimate, but the upgrade would pay for itself in just a few years. Extra fees to consumers to pay for upgrades would be almost imperceptible in monthly bills.

Also in December, but separately, the power industry's Edison Electric Institute (EEI), Washington, D.C., issued transmission-related studies drawing attention to several key issues and issue areas. Winning local, state, and federal approvals was found to be the biggest single obstacle to adding transmission capacity. Transmission in the western United States was found to be especially wanting.

In testimony to Congress on 10 October, EEI had said, "Annual investment in transmission has been declining by almost $120 million a year for the past 25 years. 1999 [it] was less than half of what it had been 20 years earlier."

The big picture will be the focus of the Energy Department's National Transmission Grid Study, which took off from Vice President Dick Cheney's National Energy Policy report of 17 May 2001. The new study was to "examine the benefits of establishing a national electrical grid, identifying major transmission bottlenecks and remedies to remove them."

Task forces, involving many of the experts who took part in the POST study, were set up to evaluate the issues in detail. Planning and the need for new capacity, plus siting and permitting, were areas of investigation. Others were business models for investment and operation, the operation of interconnected transmission systems, reliability management and oversight, and new transmission technologies.

Study participants have been unusually tight-lipped about what the report will say, but several issues came to the fore during the process. State governors, for example, howled at the idea of the federal government gaining the power to site transmission lines without state approval. Sensitized, the Energy secretary's office took a draft of their department's report and ran it by representatives of the governors' organization, while DOE staffers are talking about cooperative, coordinated efforts. FERC will establish regional panels to "strengthen its relationships with the states."

One proposal floated would require federal legislation to give local and state authorities a year for a first try at siting and then allow FERC to override them with a certificate of public convenience or necessity. But permitting is not the only problem: also to be taken into account are uncertain returns on transmission investment; an unclear regulatory climate; and reluctance to host power lines mainly benefiting other states.

Regional differences and questions of who ultimately should pay for the added transmission also are cans of worms. Lower-cost power areas and some traditional utilities, notably in the Southeast, are resisting a fast march to more nationalized electricity markets.

Why are study participants holding their cards so close to their chest? They are under strict instructions not to talk till the report is officially released. Asked if this is because the Bush administration is looking to get the biggest bang for the buck, or whether it's just its general operating style to clamp down on leaks, one participant said, "No. I think they just want to assure that when the study is reported, it will be reported accurately."

To get the story straight from the horse's mouth, watch for the release of the NTGS 2001 study on the DOE site:

To Probe Further

The Department of Energy transmission report, when it is released, will be accessible at Background on how the report was prepared and some preliminary findings are already available at the site.

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions