First published on August 15, 2012

On August 14, 2003, more than 50 million people in the Northeast and Canada lost power after a major US grid collapsed. The problem started with a tree growing too close to a line, causing it to overheat. Keep trees away from power lines, right? It seems so simple! On September 8, 2011, nearly 5 million people in southern California and Arizona lost power when a worker mistakenly removed a piece of monitoring equipment at a substation. These events demonstrate how fragile the grid in the United States really is. 

We would all like to think that if we do the proper amount of planning, we can anticipate events and achieve our goals. I believe this holds true for every industry and remains true for the electrical transmission utilities. Congress and FERC felt, with the Energy Act of 2005, they were empowering the utilities and agencies to develop plans that would assure there would be no additional blackouts similar to the August 2003 event. The events of 2011 show there is still a great deal of work to do.

The challenges facing transmission planning goes well beyond system reliability. As an example, WestConnect, the primary western US planning authority, is projecting an increase of 7,109 miles of new transmission lines between 2012 and 2021. This represents a 22% increase over last year. Total investments forecasted for all improvements including substations in this region have risen from $9.1 billion in 2011 to $13.1 billion in the 2012 forecast, or a 44.7% increase. These lines and substations are evaluated and included in the planning process based on many assumptions and variables; some of which are outside of WestConnect’s control. Will congress extend the Production Tax Credit (PTC) which will allow the renewable energy generators to continue to develop projects requiring new transmission lines? How fast will utility companies close existing coal fired plants and build new natural gas facilities? Will the price of natural gas remain low to support the development of new gas generation plants? Will FERC impose new orders similar to Order 1000?

With so many unanswered questions and the long timeframes to permit and construct new lines, it sometimes feels like the entire process is at a standstill. To counteract all of these uncertainties, the transmission industry remains hard working and resilient. The “keep your nose to the grind stone” mentality is slowly leading to change and improvement to the nation’s grid.

Now, if we could just get past the standstill on Capitol Hill as we wait for the results of the upcoming presidential election!