A national system would also be expensive. A study by the utility AEP suggests that a new national system of 19,000 miles of high-voltage lines would cost $60 billion. It’s unclear whether the costs of such a system will be competitive with other approaches to reducing emissions, says Steven Hauser, vice president of grid integration at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in Golden, CO. “It may be cost effective to build it from North Dakota to Chicago; building it to Boston or to Los Angeles may not,” he says. “From a cost point of view, where’s the point of no return?”
What’s more, advances in technology could change the economics involved and make long-distance wind transmission projects obsolete. For example, far-offshore wind farms could be located just a few dozen miles from major cities and provide wind power that is cheaper and more reliable than wind farms on land.
Hauser says that ultimately, stringing high-voltage trunk lines from the Midwest to the rest of the country is unnecessary. What’s more important is developing a smarter grid. Equipping transmission lines, distribution networks, and electrical appliances in homes and businesses with sensors and controls that can communicate remotely with grid operators could reduce demand for electricity, allow existing lines to handle more electricity, and make it easier to integrate wind and other intermittent renewable-energy technologies.
As it is, grid operators have little information about real-time conditions on the grid and no control over demand. With a smart grid, power could quickly be rerouted in response to increases and decreases in wind power. Operators would know how hot transmission lines are getting, allowing them to decide with more accuracy how much power they can carry. Also, consumers could program their homes to use less power during times of peak demand, reducing the need for new power plants.