Electric power: Can't use it if you can't move it

Maintaining, expanding grid is a key part of the electricity puzzle

March 14, 2011|By Dan Ervin

In order to continue the economic recovery in Maryland and the U.S., it is necessary to maintain a dependable supply of electricity. This will require three contributing factors: conservation, generation and transmission. Each of these factors is important in different and interrelated ways.

Unfortunately, while much attention has been paid in recent years to conservation and generation, little thought has been given to the equally crucial issue of transmission.

Energy conservation has enjoyed support by many groups for a long time. The EmPower Maryland Act, passed by the General Assembly in 2008, mandates electrical conservation through a variety of programs designed to meet a range of goals. These programs and goals continue to benefit from growth in public support.

In addition to setting conservation goals, the EmPower Maryland Act sets a goal that 20 percent of Maryland's electricity will come from renewable sources by 2022. Currently, most news related to generation is about renewable sources. Solar, biomass, geothermal, hydroelectric and wind are the usual primary sources for renewable energy. Wind turbines have already sprung up on the mountains in Western Maryland. These will soon be followed by wind turbines off Maryland's coast.

Natural gas is the current traditional fuel of choice for electrical generation. Natural gas prices are at near-record low levels because of new extraction technologies. The Marcellus shale gas deposits, some of which are located in Western Maryland, have impacted the natural gas markets by increasing the regional supply. Even nuclear power is undergoing a revival, with more than 30 American nuclear plants in some phase of proposal.

And yet, amid all the enthusiasm and optimism for new generation sources, there is surprisingly little discussion about how the electricity produced by them will reach users. This omission brings us to the third critical element for reliable electrical power: transmission.

The issue of transmission struggles for respect. In 2007, PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission operator that serves 13 states (including Maryland) and the District of Columbia, directed the construction of additional transmission infrastructure to ensure the reliability of our electrical system. Planning began on two projects that PJM recommended: the Potomac-Appalachian Transmission Highline (PATH) and the Mid-Atlantic Power Pathway (MAPP).

The 2008-09 economic downturn forced PJM to reexamine the need for additional transmission capacity. Despite a temporary reduction in the consumption of electricity, PJM has twice reaffirmed the need for new investment in transmission, most recently in December. However, PJM recently put the PATH project on hold while it reviews its analysis of need. It is not clear how this affects MAPP.

Imagine the impact on the region if Friendship Airport had not expanded to become what we now know as BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport. The original terminal would be unable to meet the needs of today's traveling public. Likewise, consider the impact if the two beltways that encircle the major cities of our region had never evolved from their original design and capacity. In both cases, what would be the impact to our state's economy?

Similarly, the electrical transmission grid directly affects our economic well-being. But unfortunately, no major transmission capacity has been added in our state during the last 30 years. Yet, usage of electricity, by a population that has grown by nearly 1 million in the last 20 years, has increased by 300 percent. In part because of over-congested transmission routes, the cost of electricity to our consumers is higher than in many other Mid-Atlantic states. Furthermore, a bonus consequence of new transmission construction would be the creation of needed jobs at this critical time.

What can an individual do to help remedy this problem? Ensuring adequate transmission lines is the purview of the state government, specifically the Public Service Commission. The essential first step is for everyone to understand the need for transmission upgrades. The PSC, like all regulatory bodies, has an obligation to listen to all sides of an issue and to act in the public's interest.

As long as generation — particularly from renewable sources — and conservation are what the public is exclusively focused on, it makes for slow and arduous going for the issue of transmission. Public support for all the elements that combine to provide reliable electricity is essential to our state's well-being.

Dan Ervin is founder and director of ShoreENERGY, the energy, economic and sustainability program of the Perdue School of Business at Salisbury University. ShoreENERGY is a member of Marylanders for Reliable Power.

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