See Inside November 2010

How to Build the Supergrid

The U.S. needs a new electric transmission system to deliver cleaner, more reliable power nationwide. Four steps could clear hurdles

Platts, a division of Mcgraw-Hill (transmission lines); National Renewable Energy Laboratory (potential solar and wind energy regions)

The transmission grid that delivers electricity from power plants is a vital piece of America’s infrastructure. It is also good at hiding its flaws. People may notice the towers and wires marching across the landscape or the local substations that step down the voltage so electricity can be distributed to homes and businesses, but the transmission grid does not show congestion like highways do or flooding like burst water mains do. Nevertheless, the grid needs a major upgrade. If the U.S. is going to switch from dirty fossil fuels to cleaner, more renewable wind and solar power—or even nuclear—the transmission system must be vastly expanded to reach the remote deserts and high plains where the sun shines most and the wind blows hardest. Furthermore, if the country wants to protect itself against increasingly large blackouts, which cost tens of billions of dollars or more a year, it needs to modernize the grid as well.

So how do we build this supergrid? After years of debate, most engineers agree that a modern overlay should be added on top of the old, piecemeal, overtaxed system, creating a backbone that has greater capacity by using higher voltages and reaching more remote locations. The Obama administration’s 2009 stimulus package allocated $6.5 billion in credit for federal agencies to build power lines and $2 billion in loan guarantees for private companies, so money is available to get started. Constructing the supergrid will require several big technical steps, and one political.

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