In Texas Even Energy Transmission is Bigger, $7 Billion Bigger

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China has been admired for its massive electricity infrastructure projects, especially by the metals producing industries that do handsome business selling the the steel, aluminum and copper that is needed for the construction of thousands of miles of transmission lines.

China’s largest grid operator, State Grid Corporation of China (SGCC), said last week that energy authorities might soon approve a plan to build 12 electricity transmission lines linking the coal production and hydropower centers in inland areas such as Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Shaanxi and Yunnan to the densely populated east, including cities such as Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei. The total investment is said to be more than 210 billion yuan ($34 billion), and the 12 major projects include four ultra-high-voltage alternating current (UHV AC) power transmission lines, five UHV direct current (DC) lines and three conventional 500-kilovolt networks.

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Beijing is keen to encourage alternative energy projects in the west to close polluting fossil fuel plants in the densely populated east and officials there see transmission as key to the success of that policy. This runs somewhat counter to the usual approach in the US, where transmission lines are only built to replace old failing infrastructure or when there is a specific need in terms of a new plants demanding it.

Yet in the US, Texas is not content with its traditional role as an oil and gas supplier. Now home to some of the most extensive unconventional oil and gas resources, Texas is looking to develop wind farms in the sparsely populated but windy panhandle and western counties. Unfortunately, these are a long way from the urban conurbations of Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, etc. and this remoteness has been a major stumbling block in the development of alternative energy projects, particularly wind farms, in the state.

Not anymore, though. The NY Times reports this year a sprawling network of new high-voltage power lines was completed at a cost of $7 billion. By any standard, the scale is enormous. Anywhere else in the country a big transmission project is a few hundred miles long and costs a few hundred million dollars; this is a network of 3,600 miles and at the $7 billion price tag is more money than the whole country has spent on transmission in recent years. As predicted, there has been a flurry of investment in new wind farms with 7 gigawatts of new projects started by the end of 2013, but further new investment has been thrown in doubt as congress debates whether the by 2.2 cents a kilowatt-hour subsidy should be extended when it expires at the end of this year.

Before we get too excited that Texas achievements will be replicated around the country, it really seems unlikely without federal support knocking state and interstate transmission companies heads’ together. Texas is almost unique in having borders roughly contiguous with the grid operator, putting its electric system under the control of a single legislature and a single public utilities commission, and it is by far the largest in that category. The others, New York and California, are much more tightly tied to their neighboring states than Texas’s grid is.

So Texas new grid system may be something of a one-off but its success could at least spur debate among lawmakers about the merits of further grid investment and add support to the proposal for a national interstate transmission system, still a distant dream.

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