Transmission-System Upgrades Can Often Face Powerful Opposition

Months after this summer's massive North American blackout, the nation's electric transmission system remains the focus of attention. Most involved agree on the need for more—and newer—lines. But there is considerable disagreement among leading industry groups on just how much needed upgrades will cost.


Months after this summer's massive North American blackout, the nation's electric transmission system remains the focus of attention. Most involved agree on the need for more—and newer—lines. But there is considerable disagreement among leading industry groups on just how much needed upgrades will cost. And getting community approval for such disruptive projects is difficult.

An exact cause of the line failure that triggered the Aug. 14 blackout had yet to be determined by this issue's press time. However, transmission-system inadequacies have been widely recognized as major contributors to the resulting cascade of outages throughout the Northeast. With local and regional systems connecting, at times, through a single transfer point, utilities had no option beyond shutting down when upstream problems shut off or corrupted their supply.

Utility deregulation has encouraged power trading on a regional, and even national, basis. This scenario is leading some to argue for greater regional and national oversight of interconnected transmission systems. Many local and state groups, though—especially those with adequate generating resources—fear they may be forced to foot the bill for upgrading their interconnections to become better conduits through which others' trades can pass.

Industry experts may disagree on just how much such upgrades will cost, but there seems to be one point of consensus—the amount is substantial by any estimation. The Edison Electric Institute, which represents the business interests of U.S. utilities, puts the tab at approximately $55 billion, while the Electric Power Research Institute, the research arm of the electric-utility industry, says costs may total up to $100 billion.

But costs aren't necessarily the biggest hurdle to improving electricity transmission. Initiating new transmission-line projects has become a lengthy process that can involve years of negotiations with municipal and state citizens groups and government officials.

One battle currently being fought by California's PG&E illustrates the difficulties utilities can face. In September 2002, the company proposed a new 27-mile, 230-kV line to bring power through San Mateo County into San Francisco. Community leaders fought this mixed overhead/underground plan, stating that the aboveground portion would hurt property values in affected neighborhoods.

PG&E went back to the drawing board and came up with an entirely underground option, which would be more expensive but would eliminate the need for aboveground towers. A draft environmental impact report has rated this proposal "environmentally superior," according to a Sept. 10 San Francisco Examiner article.

However, community leaders objected to this plan, citing safety concerns of nearby residents and the potential for traffic disruption during construction. These groups offered their own overhead/underground route through less-congested areas as an alternative. But utility officials point out that this option would place an underground portion of the line directly over the San Andreas Fault and risk damage to an environmentally sensitive habitat. The California Public Utilities Commission is expected to rule on the matter in early 2004.

Work now beginning on another large California project illustrates the potential savings such transmission-line upgrades may promise. The plan will add a third 500-kV line to the Path 15 transmission system, which connects the northern and southern halves of the state, as well as upgrade substations along the route. The resulting 1,500 MW of added capacity is estimated to save Californians $100 million in energy costs during normal years and more than $300 million during dry years.

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