Utilities plan over $51.1 billion in transmission development

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Growth in renewable electricity production will drive significant upgrades to the U.S. electric transmission grid, according to a study released by the Edison Electric Institute.  EEI's seventh annual "Transmission Projects: At a Glance" identifies over 150 transmission projects planned by EEI member utilities for development over the next decade.  According to the report, these projects entail investments of at least $51.1 billion through 2023.  While the transmission projects may advance multiple goals, the majority of the projected investments will be for projects supporting the integration of renewable resources into the grid.

EEI is a trade association composed of investor-owned electric utilities.  Its members represent approximately 70 percent of the U.S. electric power industry.  EEI tracks transmission investment by its members.  According to the report, annual transmission investment is increasing, from 11.1 billion in 2011 to approximately $15.1 billion in 2013.  At the same time, EEI has revised its total future projection downward.  In 2012, EEI members reported $64 billion in planned transmission over the next decade, but changing projections of system needs have revised that number downward to $51.1 billion.

Under federal laws including the Energy Policy Act of 2005, utilities are given incentives to develop transmission lines and related assets.  These incentives are designed to ensuring a safe and reliable electric grid, but also reward utilities for developing projects to integrate renewable resources like wind farms into the grid.  Because ratepayers ultimately bear the cost of transmission infrastructure, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and state public utilities commission regulate utility proposals to expand the grid. 

According to EEI, most proposed transmission projects advance multiple goals.  The study shows that 76% of projects (approximately $38.7 billion) are pitched as supporting the integration of renewable resources. In the aggregate, these projects entail the addition or upgrade of 13,300 miles of transmission lines.  Similarly, most projects are designed to enable electricity to flow across state lines; 52% ($26.5 billion) represent large interstate transmission projects spanning multiple states.

Whether each project identified in the EEI report will be built remains to be seen.  As demand for electricity shifts -- whether due to energy efficiency improvements, a declining economy, or newly proposed generating projects -- the need for any given transmission line may diminish.  For example, last year the $2 billion Potomac Appalachian Transmission Highline (PATH) project was canceled after it was deemed unnecessary.  The proposed Northern Pass transmission project connecting Quebec to New Hampshire is facing significant opposition due to the siting of its planned route, as well as on environmental and economic grounds.  Nevertheless, the significant transmission development projected by EEI remains likely to occur in the aggregate.

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