Has our industry moved past the era of “Big Transmission” projects? A September article in Public Utilities Fortnightly (PUF) by Steve Huntoon makes a compelling case that it has. As evidence, Steve cites the ongoing difficulty in getting several highly publicized, long-line transmission projects underway. With all due respect to Steve, I think the answer depends on how you define Big Transmission.

In a rebuttal letter recently published in PUF, I offer the opinion that we can’t simply define Big Transmission projects as long lines of new transmission corridor spanning hundreds of miles. Burns & McDonnell has designed, built and program managed multiple billion-dollar projects that were in the 150- to 200-mile range that should be classified as Big Transmission because of the substantial capital investment and dramatic system improvements they spurred throughout the entire regional grid.

It’s really not a debate over Big Transmission versus incremental system improvements. There are occasions when Big Transmission projects make economic sense and other situations when incremental improvements are most prudent.

Still, I believe that public/regulatory policy, economic viability and the need to sustain near-100 percent system reliability will continue to push North America and the world toward building more Big Transmission.

Public/regulatory policy driving us toward renewable energy is the biggest factor that will create an industry necessity for building more Big Transmission projects. As companies plan major projects — like Clean Line Energy working to deliver wind energy from Plains states to eastern load centers, and like TransWest Express pushing to help California achieve a 50 percent renewable portfolio standard (RPS) — big, efficient and economical transmission lines will be needed to make governments’ ambitious climate-related policies a reality.

Economics drives business in North America and the world. Long-distance transmission has always been and will remain a viable and competitive alternative for power delivery when considering fuel source and location, production and delivery efficiencies, and energy density.

System reliability is taken for granted in the United States. The undeveloped world lives with regular brownouts and the subsequent impacts to the safety, health and welfare of the populace. Here in North America, we’ve been fortunate to have the foresight and resources to build a robust and highly reliable transmission system. It’s served us well and allowed many technical and policy-related “experiments” to be successfully conducted with little or no public impact. Despite major U.S. outages in 1965 and 2003, such instances have been few and far between. However, our transmission system is not immortal. It has a life span and, in many cases, that life span has been far exceeded. Big Transmission lines delivering high-voltage electricity to major loads and load centers must be periodically upgraded or replaced in order to maintain the high levels of system reliability that our country and the economy rely on.

The debate over Big Transmission will continue. In fact, Steve Huntoon and I will be part of that debate during a panel discussion on April 13 at the EEI Transmission Distribution Metering & Mutual Assistance meeting in New Orleans. For those who can’t attend the upcoming conference, there are plenty of resources available to gain further insight on this topic. One I can recommend is an excellent report commissioned by WIRES, Market Resource Alternatives: An Examination of New Technologies in the Electric Transmission Planning Process.

Where do you stand on the topic? Have we moved past the era of Big Transmission? Or will Big Transmission projects continue to be an important part of the solution as we work to meet the challenges created by the transition to cleaner energy and even greater system reliability? I welcome your thoughts on the topic.

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With extensive experience in industry policy and advanced technologies applied throughout North America, Mike Beehler is a Vice President at Burns & McDonnell.