Comment: Why the nation needs a national electrical transmission plan now

Why the nation needs a national electrical transmission plan now

Before he was elected as the president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower tried to take a cross-country road trip with an Army convoy. The trip from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco took over two months as the convoy tried to navigate the jumble of roads and got into over 200 accidents. Recognizing this as an economic roadblock, Eisenhower, working with the nation’s governors, created a visionary national highway plan when he became president.

Today, we face a similar challenge, as our hodgepodge of regional grids is preventing us from transferring large amounts of electricity across the country. As a result, clean energy resources like wind and solar power, which are abundant and low cost in some regions, cannot readily be shared with other regions where market demand is high and remains unserved.

In a letter last week to U.S. Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), chair and vice chair of the bipartisan Governors’ Wind Energy Coalition, warned that the nation’s most cost-competitive wind energy resources will never bring value to their states’ economies “unless we support the creation of a modern system to deliver that power to the marketplace.” Long-distance transmission is the critical link between these low-cost, untapped electricity resources and the customers who want clean and less expensive energy.Modernizing the nation’s electrical transmission system is as important to the states’ economic development today as the nation’s interstate highway system was 50 years ago. Like the highway system, the nation’s high voltage network is aging. It was planned and built for more limited electricity markets and uses, but is inadequate for the electrical demands of the states’ modern information-based economies.

A robust transmission infrastructure provides a foundation for a competitive environment for businesses and the citizens they employ. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook said that the only way Apple could supply renewable energy to one of its facilities “was to build it.” Companies should not need to choose between economic success and environmental responsibility, he said. That’s why, for example, Google and Facebook located major data centers in Iowa, where modern, reliable, clean, affordable power is currently available. (Iowa and South Dakota generate nearly 30 percent of their electricity from wind.) Tim Cook, Google and Facebook are looking to the future — not the past.

A nation as large and diverse as the United States should not address major transmission development without a national plan. We should be siting and building major transmission lines to wind and solar rich areas of the nation now. Just as waiting for private developers to build a hodgepodge of roads did not work for the national highway system, it will not work for the grid. The plan will require leadership from federal and state governments and must consider and incorporate regional differences in electricity delivery systems.

Building this system will be difficult. However, not building new transmission lines would be worse, depriving Americans of the benefits of a cleaner, more affordable and more reliable electricity system.

Pearce is executive director of the Governors’ Wind Energy Coalition, a bipartisan group of the nation’s governors dedicated to the development of the nation’s wind energy resources to meet America’s domestic energy demands in an environmentally responsible manner.