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Nov 182008

By John DeFore

For everyone puzzled at recent energy-independence speeches that seem to focus as much on building new electric lines as on solar research or wind power, a new report helps make one inconvenient truth clear: Without new infrastructure, switching to non-carbon power could make our electric system far less reliable than it is today.

The report was compiled by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a self-regulatory organization focused in part on ensuring that power transmission stays blackout-free from coast to coast.

It solicited input from the companies it oversees on how new climate change initiatives could affect the bulk transfer of electricity, and came to a few conclusions, the broadest of which was this: “A decision on national climate change policy is needed in the U.S. to provide regulatory certainty and support for industry action. Delay on this important policy is negatively impacting both reliability and climate objectives.”

One problem is that renewable power sources don’t just generate energy differently, but will fit differently (or not at all) into the continent’s existing grid of transmission lines.

“New generation resources under consideration,” the report explains, “are typically location-constrained — meaning they must be sited in a particular area, such as where the wind blows, the sun shines, or, in the case of clean coal with carbon capture and sequestration, where the infrastructure exists to support them.”

Such resources therefore “can require long-distance transmission lines to areas not
already served by existing transmission infrastructure,” since areas, like cities, where the most power is needed rarely overlap with those where these new resources are found, like the sun-scorched desert.

Energy companies can deal with these issues, but their decisions are made difficult by “the emerging ‘patchwork’ approach to carbon reductions and renewable resource integration,” in which cities and regional alliances have been forced to pick up the slack and make guidelines when Washington won’t.

As one CEO told the group, “we have planned regionally and inter-regionally for over a decade, but ideas remain on paper” while uncertainty lingers about what sort of overall regulation the industry might face.

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