The Biggest Energy Non-Issue in Tuesday’s Election

Until Monday, it looked almost certain that one of the biggest energy issues facing the nation would once again escape mention in a national campaign season, despite a record-breaking onslaught of ads from candidates, political parties, and Super PACs.  Thankfully, 23 governors from both political parties and states ranging from Washington to the Dakotas to Massachusetts stepped forward to urge the Administration to use authorities under current law to expand and modernize the nation’s outdated and inadequate high voltage transmission network.  In a letter Monday to Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, Governors’ Wind Energy Coalition Chairman Dennis Daugaard (R-SD) and Vice Chairman Jay Inlsee (D-WA) summed it up this way: “The nation’s electrical transmission system is as important to our states’ economic development today as the nation’s interstate highway system was 50 years ago.”

It’s a welcome message, and it comes not a moment too soon.  In the 80 years since FDR declared it “a necessity of life,” electricity has steadily displaced other energy sources in every sphere of consumer, commercial, and industrial activity. Safe, precise, economic, and efficient, electricity is the lifeblood of our economy.  Loss of electricity, even for short periods, is costly, dangerous, and life-threatening.

Transmission gives Americans universal access to electricity that is affordable, reliable, and increasingly, environmentally sustainable.  Despite its age, the grid is remarkably efficient and cost effective.  Losses[1] from transmission and distribution have fallen steadily for decades, from more than 16% in the late 1920s to less than 7% in 2009[2].  At just 11%, transmission is the smallest part of the average consumer’s bill, far less than the 58% for generation and 31% for distribution[..3].

Expanding and modernizing the nation’s high voltage network is also the single most important step we can take to reduce carbon emissions and address the threat of climate change.   America’s vast wind and solar resources are capable of cost-effectively powering the entire country dozens of times over, but because they are concentrated in remote regions, we have barely tapped them.  A robust high voltage transmission network would unlock them – slashing greenhouse gas emissions and ushering in an explosion of home-grown energy development, construction, manufacturing, and technological innovation – all while making the grid more reliable, resilient, efficient, and competitive.

But if we build a modern and robust transmission network, will the economic, national security and environmental benefits come?  A rapidly growing body of evidence says yes.  Texas became the runaway national leader in wind – more than 12,000 MW, double the amount in second-place California – by identifying the best resources and building a high voltage network to develop and deliver them.  In the Midwest, the grid operator (MISO) estimates that a group of 17 high voltage lines across nine states to be built by 2019 will deliver net economic benefits of $13 to $50 billion to electricity customers over the next two to four decades, while enabling 43 million MWh of wind energy needed to meet state renewable electricity goals[4].  The Southwest Power Pool (regional grid operator for Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and parts of Texas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arkansas, and Louisiana) expects 1500 miles of new 345 kV transmission lines to reduce the cost of energy by more than five times their $1.8 billion engineering and construction cost, while allowing the region to respond to policies like EPA’s Clean Power Plan cost effectively and without disruptions[5].

Like our highways, railroads, waterways, and the internet, the electric transmission network is essential economic infrastructure.  Long overdue investments to expand and modernize it will generate enormous economic and environmental benefits for generations of Americans far into the future.  Governor Daugaard has some excellent advice for all the winners of yesterday’s elections: “It is now time for all parties to work together to ensure that our electric grid is planned, paid for and built in the most effective way possible.”  Let’s hope they take it.


Bill White is a senior advisor at Americans for a Clean Energy Grid and the president of Norton White Energy


[1] The fraction of energy generated that is lost due to heating of transmission and distribution lines and of other components.

[2] Massachusetts Institute of Technology, The Future of the Electric Grid: An Interdisciplinary MIT Study, 2011.

[3] U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2012, Reference Case, Table 8: Electrical Supply, Disposition, Prices, and Emissions.

[4] MTEP14 MVP Triennial Review: A review of the public policy, economic, and qualitative benefits of the Multi-Value Project Portfolio, Midcontinent Independent System Operator, September, 2014.

[5] “SPP Approves Transmission Plan for the Year 2030, Further De­velopment of New Energy Markets,” Southwest Power Pool, Press Release, January 26, 2011.

Morning Consult