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At last-electrical power transmission's day has come

By Carl Levesque American Wind Energy Association

It's official: power transmission has become a sexy topic.

Clearly, few areas are more important to renewable energy development than transmission-and a recently released landmark White Paper from the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) makes that clear.

But what is particularly striking is that the topic of transmission, previously considered far too wonky and technical to be discussed beyond the walls of a Washington, D.C., bureaucrat's windowless

office, has not only come to the forefront of national policy discussion, it has received attention in places ranging from the primetime evening news to last fall's Presidential debates.

But first, the White Paper Titled "Green Power Superhighways: Building a Path to America's Clean Energy Future," the document details current inadequacies of the U.S. electric transmission infrastructure and offers policy solutions to address them.

Simply put, inadequate transmission capacity is a significant barrier to renewable energy development in the U.S. The release of the paper comes at a critical time. While President Barack Obama and Congress have made strong commitments to renewable energy as a driver for job creation and economic growth, the consensus among experts is that U.S. renewable energy resources-considered among the best in the world-cannot reach their full potential without renewed investment in the nation's transmission infrastructure, the White Paper emphasizes.

"Just as President Eisenhower's vision of a modern interstate highway system transformed commerce and transportation in our nation, the benefits of this kind of investment by our generation will far exceed the costs," said AWEA CEO Denise Bode. "We need a modern electron superhighway to power our nation's 21st Century economy with clean, renewable energy. "Nearly 300,000 MW of wind capacity is held up in the pipeline due to transmission limitations. The wind industry is ready to get these projects in the ground, create thousands of jobs, generate investment here in the U.S., and provide an inexhaustible supply of clean, affordable energy for years to come."

"President Obama has issued the bold challenge to double renewable energy generation in the U.S. in three years," said SEIA President and CEO Rhone Resch. "This will not be achieved without renewed investment in our electric transmission infrastructure to ensure that the regions with the best solar resources are connected to population centers where they are needed most. At the same time, new investments will create thousands of good-paying jobs in areas hard hit by the recession. This effort will require a cohesive plan from federal, state, and local interests and will not be easy, but we are up to the President's challenge."

As the White Paper states, the nation's transmission system is in dire need of being updated, regardless of the need to get more renewable energy connected to the grid. "To put it bluntly, we are using 19th and 20th Century technologies to tackle 21st Century challenges," said Resch at a press conference held in conjunction with the release of the White Paper. "The bottom line is that without renewed investment in our transmission grid, we will face blackouts in many parts of the United States that will have a severe impact on our economy.

"We need a dramatic shift in where and how transmission is planned and built. A robust electric transmission grid will allow these limitless resources of renewable energy to power our homes, businesses, and communities."

AWEA's Bode echoed Resch's comments, pointing out that the nation has been "driving down a highway that in many cases may have been built 20 or 30 or even 50 years ago and cobbled together" over time with no overarching national or even regional planning.

Building a green transmission superhighway, Bode pointed out, will cost consumers relatively little, and they will ultimately receive tremendous savings and benefits. "When you're talking about building an interstate highway for electrons, you have a positive impact on every citizen," she said. "It can reduce cost and it can provide more efficient electricity delivery to every consumer in the U.S. and savings to all."

But nowadays you don't have to go to an AWEA/SEIA press conference to get the transmission message. Back in the fall,

then-Senator Obama found opportunity to mention the link between transmission and renewables in the high-profile setting of a primetime Presidential debate (to think his speechwriters and debate strategists believed transmission would resonate with the American people!).

Obama has repeatedly mentioned the issue since becoming President as well, again using a primetime, nationally televised platform. Obama, in his February address to Congress and the nation, said, "We will soon lay down thousands of miles of power lines that can carry new energy to cities and towns across this country."

The same week, a Clean Energy Summit convened, featuring a head-turning A-List of participants that included Bill Clinton,

Al Gore, legendary Texas oil man T. Boone Pickens, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and several other prominent figures. Also taking her place at the table: AWEA's Denise Bode.

Once again, participants understood the importance of transmission. Pelosi spoke of rebuilding America's infrastructure, and "part of that infrastructure is the grid," she said. Further, generating more renewable energy, she said, "will mean nothing if there's not a grid to transmit it." And like Bode the week before at the White Paper press conference, Pelosi conjured the Eisenhower/Interstate-highway analogy.

The AWEA/SEIA White Paper is available at:


March/April 2009