A Reliable Green Grid Could Need $2 Trillion

In order to meet the Renewable Portfolio Standards of states, utilities will need to add an aggregate of nearly 40 gigawatts of clean energy generation by 2030. And to get all that power to customers, a total investment of as much as $2 trillion into transmission and distribution networks will be required, according to a report released today by energy consultancy The Brattle Group.


To maintain grid reliability with so much new, intermittent and far-flung renewable energy generation, our national electricity grid needs a serious upgrade. In fact, the Brattle report estimates that more money might have to be invested in the grid than in actual renewable energy generation.

Another report released today by the energy regulatory group North American Electric Reliability (NERC), identified the lack of investment in transmission infrastructure as a major obstacle for green energy deployment. “Inadequate attention to the transmission grid will undermine all efforts to address climate change while endangering our electric reliability, and thereby our national security,” Michael Heyeck, senior V-P of transmission at utility American Electric Power (s AEP), says in the report.

In an op-ed yesterday, Al Gore called for an investment of $400 billion over 10 years to build a national smart grid needed to connect renewable energy in remote locations to the cities where people will use it. Gore said the $400 billion cost “pales in comparison with the annual loss to American business of $120 billion due to the cascading failures that are endemic to our current balkanized and antiquated electricity lines.”

Both the Brattle and NERC reports highlight cleantech’s favorite low-hanging fruit, energy efficiency programs, as a way to reduce the costs of integrating renewable energy. NERC identifies demand-side controls as critical for giving the grid the needed flexibility to grow while the Brattle Group estimates energy efficiency programs can reduce the need for new energy generation by as much as 48 percent by 2030.

But energy efficiency and demand response alone can only partly quell America’s appetite for energy and more generation capacity will be needed. In order to deliver power from the mega-wind farms and solar plants being built in remote locales, NERC says a new, extra high-voltage transmission backbone will be required. This “transmission superhighway” would be overlaid on the existing grid to allow green energy to head directly to population centers.

NERC says new climate change regulations must support the development of new transmission lines. President-elect Obama has said he plans to invest in our electrical infrastructure on the scale that Eisenhower pumped public funds into the interstate highway system. That highway system cost U.S. taxpayers, in inflation-adjusted terms, more than $2.8 trillion in the first 20 years. Hopefully we’ll be able to muster the necessary funding in the coming 20 years needed to create an interstate transmission superhighway.

Graph courtesy of the Brattle Group.