TransWest highlights US transmission troubles

The start of construction on the long-awaited 3GW TransWest Express transmission line in the US is positive. But the project also shows the challenge that exists globally if countries are to unlock the $21.4trn investment that is needed to upgrade grids for net zero by 2050.

  • TransWest Express hailed as "breakthrough" for US transmission
  • The project was initiated in 2005 and identified as a priority in 2011
  • BNEF says $21.4trn investment is needed in electricity grids by 2050

Construction work started last month on the 3GW TransWest Express transmission line between US states Nevada and Wyoming.

The 732-mile project is set to carry electricity from the planned 3GW Chokecherry & Sierra Madre wind complex in Wyoming, which is being developed by Power Company of Wyoming, to customers in Nevada, Arizona and power-hungry California. The project won approval from the US Bureau of Land Management in April 2023, and has been hailed as a milestone as the US builds a resilient and ‘green’ energy mix.

Jennifer Granholm, US energy secretary, said the scheme “represents a breakthrough in the Biden-Harris administration’s efforts to accelerate transmission which will lower consumers’ costs, all while creating good-paying union jobs”. More than 1,000 people are due to be employed at the project annually until completion, which is due in 2028.

Yet if we can set aside the political back-slapping, the project is also a lesson in how difficult it will be to improve grids globally to accommodate more renewables.

TransWest Express was first initiated by the Arizona Public Service Company in 2005, and was identified as a priority by the Obama administration in 2011. The developers have been through a lengthy process to find the best route through Colorado, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming that satisfies all of the landowners and meets environmental rules. 

It is a similar story for the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project, which won support from the US Bureau of Land Management in May. The first plans for this $2bn grid link, which is set to transmit power from renewables projects totalling 4.5GW, were first introduced in 2006 by Southwestern Power. It is due to begin operating in 2026.

These projects aren’t quick, they aren’t easy, and there aren’t enough of them to cope with 2,400GW of extra renewables capacity that is set to complete globally by 2027. In many countries, investing in transmission is only now starting to be seen as a priority.

Bigger than China

Transmission difficulties have gained most attention in the busy US market, where the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory reported in April 2023 that there are 2TW of energy generation and storage projects waiting in queues to secure grid connections.

This has got significantly worse in the last year. Since August 2022, the total capacity of projects waiting for grid connections in the US has increased 40%, as companies have sought to take advantage of the support in the Inflation Reduction Act. 

But this is a problem that has been growing since the mid-2000s. LBNL has reported developers now face a five-year wait between making an interconnection request and commissioning their project, which is up from two years in 2008.

This is partly due to ageing grid infrastructure, which was designed to work with the old school energy system of large centralised energy generation plants. It is not suited as well for the decentralised wind and solar farms of the modern energy system. In the US, a large proportion of this physical transmission infrastructure was built in the 1960s and 1970s, meaning that grids are struggling to modernise even while attracting historically high levels of investment.

But interconnection delays are also due to the shortage of qualified engineers to consider the projects that are stuck in the queues; and the difficulty of securing permits and political support for individual transmission lines. There are no quick fixes for infrastructure or skills.

It is worth noting that this is not simply a US challenge. In Europe, a draft report from the European Union last year warned that around €584bn needed to be invested in the electricity grid this decade to support the quantities of wind and solar that will be needed to stop the continent’s reliance on Russian gas. Meanwhile, in the UK, energy watchdog Ofgem has branded decade-plus waits for interconnections “unacceptable”.

And fixing these challenges will take vast levels of investment. Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported in March 2023 that $21.4trn investment is needed in grids globally by 2050 to support the energy transition. That is more than the annual GDP of China; and it will need to fund 80million kilometres of transmission lines. BNEF said that meant that companies and policymakers worldwide needed to effectively double the size of electricity grids that exist today.

It is right to celebrate projects like TransWest Express and SunZia. Schemes like these can help to tackle grid challenges. 

However, governments must also recognise that it’s not feasible to upgrade grids with a patchwork of piecemeal projects that take decades to come to fruition. Private investors and transmission companies need to see plans that treat the energy transition with the seriousness it deserves.

Without transmission, there will be no transition.

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