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Building the Electron Superhighway

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Should the federal government build or incent others to build a new electron superhighway? In other words, a backbone for a 21st century electrical grid? At NDN's recent event on clean infrastructure, U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee asked precisely that question and it's one more and more energy leaders are asking.

Our current grid, as former CIA Director Jim Woolsey has noted, resembles nothing so much as the road system before interstates were built. Had President Eisenhower not built the interstate system after observing the autobahns in Germany and fretting over the difficulty of moving an army from one end of America to the other, our roads would be a network of streets, shopping boulevards and country roads, slowed by trucks as well as tolls. There would be no easy way to travel between one large city and another and trade and distribution of goods would be drastically hampered.

This is precisely the situation we have today in the world of electricity, where mid-20th century wires are now tasked with carrying 21st century loads and tolls are collected by dozens of utilities along the way. As a result, instead of a national market in electricity, we have a balkanized patchwork of local fiefdoms each with vastly different prices. Electricity producers face obstacles in moving their electrons to market -- hardly an ideal solution.

How would an electron superhighway work? One proposal by the Energy Department would build major high voltage (765KV) trunk lines traveling East to West and North to South, particularly in the underserved center of the country. Like Interstates 10, 40, 80 and 90 which link the East and West and Interstates 5, 55 and 95 (as well as those in between) which link the North and South, these large roads would facilitate long distance movement of power. Relieved of this burden, utilities could focus their resources on localized distribution. While the proposal might cost $60 billion to $100 billion (a weekend's worth of bailout money), the long-term benefits would be tremendous. In fact, the proposal could be financed through a miniscule tax of less than a penny on the average monthly utility bill.

A particularly interesting approach to building an electron superhighway would be to run the cables underground. No one wants a high voltage transmission line running anywhere near their home, leading to complex obstacles to siting new lines. Additionally, underground lines are far more expensive than overhead ones and it is harder to identify problems when they occur. However, new superconducting wire (eliminating almost all the resistance in a wire by cooling it down using liquid nitrogen) that can be laid in a three-foot trench and is already being implemented in Long Island could be run underneath bike paths, along roads and in other unobtrusive places. While this technology, proven in pilot projects and now being tested at scale is new, it could revolutionize long-distance power transmission.

The interstate highway system is not the only model for moving goods. The Internet backbone, though jumpstarted by federal investment, is run privately for profit. Similarly, private companies own the long distance natural gas pipes. And private companies own the railroads.

Of these, the Internet system is probably least illustrative because it remains unregulated. Natural gas is produced at a comparatively limited number of points, simplifying its long distance transportation requirements. America's rail system, a relic of the 19th century, is probably not a model for a ubiquitous electricity network.

It may be that federal ownership is not necessary. However, a national tax on electricity would certainly be easier to implement than hundreds of individual rate cases -- the traditional method for funding investment. Important obstacles to greater federal involvement in electricity remain, however, in the form of state regulators and some utilities that have traditionally opposed a larger federal role.

As America confronts its 21st century challenges, in particular, developing a grid that can facilitate a national electricity market and also accommodate decentralized generation of renewable power, the idea of an electron superhighway merits serious attention. At a very minimum, work should accelerate on how to implement an electricity backbone. As FERC Commissioner Jon Wellinghoff, quoting Albert Einstein, remarked at NDN's clean infrastructure event, "physics is easy, politics is hard."

[Cross posted on NDN Blog]

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