Much to our excitement, wind energy continues to grow as a way of meeting U.S. demand for electricity, now accounting for about 40% of the new yearly additions to the country’s electrical capacity. However, as the industry continues to grow, one of the challenges it continually faces is transmitting electricity from rural wind farms to the urban areas that need it.  To put this issue into perspective, the US transmission system is like a highway system with many local roads but few interstates; a fine system on a local level but not as good over long distances. To overcome this barrier, the federal government and the American Wind Energy Association are advocating for the creation of an intrastate electrical superhighway that would connect the country with a spider web of high-voltage transmission lines. The only question is deciding who pays for it — an especially tricky question since long-distance power lines would benefit many people over a large geographic area. The oil- and coal-based power plants that have the lions’ share of US energy production don’t have this problem: luckily for them, they can be built near cities, limiting the need for long-distance transmission.

Luckily, solutions have begun to arrive from the grassroots level. A recent breakthrough was made by the Southwest Power Pool (SPP), a regional association of power companies which helps manage the transmission grid in the American Southwest. Several weeks ago, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved their new cost allocation plan which creates a “highway/byway” system of paying for transmission. Basically, the cost to build power lines that carry large amounts of power (300+kV) are distributed among many utilities in the region because the lines will serve wide areas. Smaller transmission lines (less than 100kV) are paid for entirely by local utilities since they are intended mostly for local use. For lines of intermediate size (100-300kV), local utilities pay much of the cost but other utilities around the region chip in too. FERC’s acceptance of this plan clears the way for SPP and other utilities to start building longer transmission lines, especially in the wind-rich Heartland, which is SPP’s primary area of service.

This newly approved highway/byway system will allow transmission lines to be built between Wichita, KS, Spearhead, KS, and Hitchland, TX. Once completed, these lines will span much of southern Kansas and the Oklahoma Panhandle, one of the most wind-abundant regions in the country. The construction of these power lines will likely be a huge boost to area wind projects whose electricity will now become accessible to new population centers.

New interstate transmission lines on a national scale would help consumers save billions of dollars. For instance, according to one study done by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), a $4.9 billion dollar investment in new transmission would pay for itself in less than three years and save ratepayers about $1.7 billion per year for each year after that. Not bad. Further investment in transmission would also act as a huge incentive for the wind industry to expand into more wind-rich locations, bringing all the benefits of new jobs, local income, reduced emissions, and fewer “natural” catastrophes (ie, oil spills) with it.

Federal efforts to plan new interstate transmission lines have been repeatedly thwarted in the past by one question: who pays for the updates? SPP’s cost allocation plan could be the revelation that finally marks the genesis of a nation-wide interstate transmission overhaul. What we need now is for more regional transmission operators to adopt “highway/byway” plans similar to SPP’s. The adoption of such policies would be a good first step toward a much-needed update to our national grid.