Transmission lines
Credit: Michael Kappel / Creative Commons

It’s never been easy to send power across this country, but changing politics, technology and customer expectations have made it even more complicated in recent years.

That was a theme of a panel discussion on long-distance transmission last week at the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute called “The Future of Energy Infrastructure in the U.S. and Implications for Clean Energy.”

Here is some of what ComEd Executive Vice President Terence Donnelly, former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission CEO Jon Wellinghoff, and others had to say about the evolving challenges facing the movement of electricity:

Transmission projects face more regulatory hurdles than pipelines. Regulations on building large-scale transmission lines are much more onerous compared to the construction of a gas pipeline. That’s a problem, as it makes it more difficult to send power from wind and solar rich rural areas to busy places with high demand. FERC has large permitting authority over interstate gas lines, but transmission lines are permitted at the state or local level. Many transmission projects get tripped up. “Transmission lines have to go through each state and each state agency. Plus, all the federal agencies that may be involved. They have all that to deal with while pipelines have a one-stop shop with FERC,” Wellinghoff said.

Pipeline politics has heightened developers’ sensitivity to community input. The gas pipeline industry has been touched by the recent debate over the Keystone XL Pipeline. Developers say they are now more focused on environmental and community impacts of their projects, and they are reaching out for community input in advance of building plans. “Whoever thought that a pipeline would be apart a national political debate,” Allen Fore, Vice President of Public Affairs at pipeline operator Kinder Morgan, said. “The dynamics have changed in the last several years. All companies that are operating or expanding their infrastructure have a new and important sensitivity to a wide variety of factors beyond the commercial and industry interest. The public interest is unprecedented.”

Microgrids could change the role of long-distance transmission. But large-scale transmission lines may soon be obsolete. “We are now seeing a revolutionary change in the organization of consumers—micro-transactions that are happening in most places. This will become an enormously important part of how we transact energy with each other,” said Ed Krapels, CEO of transmission developer Anbaric. “The more of that happening and the fewer new transmission lines we’ll need. The marriage of transmission lines and microgrids is where the future is.”

For now, though, utilities say more transmission is essential. Donnelly said that the growing demand for new distributed energy resources—“especially solar, certainly wind”—and large-scale battery storage will smooth the delivery of energy from intermittent renewable sources. Still, for ComEd and other regulated utilities, “the network of heavy duty, stuff on the big towers, power lines that connect whole regions together, will play a role in the transition to a more consumer energy driven future. The cost of renewables continues to fall, but they are constrained by insufficient transmission, at times. We still have to get from here to there.”

Independent developers have had success where utilities haven’t. Independent transmission developers like Anbaric have had some success navigating complicated rules, according to Krapels — unlike a utility like ComEd, independent outfits build projects where they’d like, rather than where it’s needed. Anbaric has built two large-scale, regional transmission lines recently — the Neptune Regional Transmission system, a 65-mile undersea HVDC line connecting New Jersey and New York, and the Hudson Transmission Project, which sends 660 MW of power to New York City from New Jersey.

All this is happening as customer expectation are changing. Donnelly, of ComEd, said all of these issues are playing out in Illinois amidst a revolution in the structure of utilities. “What used to be called ratepayers are now referred to as customers and are increasingly thought of as consumers. They want energy that is clean and resilient and ultra-reliable. They want their experience with energy to be as simple as grabbing an Uber and customized as choosing a series to binge-watch at home.”

Kevin has written for Midwest Energy News since May of 2017. His work has appeared in Pacific Standard, Chicago Reporter, Chicago Reader, and on NPR’s Latino USA, among other outlets.