Making electricity transmission "Smart from the Start"

Wind farm at sunset


In its latest issue, the scholarly engineering trade publication Electric Light and Power invited The Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, and National Audubon to highlight the benefits for communities and wild places of putting energy and the electric transmission in the right places.

Our message to readers: we can build responsibly-sited projects faster, better, cheaper and without harming the environment.

Where existing infrastructure and efficiency cannot keep up with electricity demand, new transmission lines are likely to be built. The Wilderness Society supports responsibly-sited transmission for renewable development or necessary reliability upgrades that cannot be achieved through less impactful measures. While some new generation  projects are already close to existing electricity corridors, many great renewable resources, particularly in the West, are far from the existing grid. That said, just because a wind turbine or solar panel array cuts carbon emissions doesn’t mean we should bulldoze an old-growth forest for the transmission lines.

More than ever, planners are in a juggling act - balancing a host of considerations, including reliable energy supplies, reducing carbon emissions, keeping costs reasonable, utilizing renewable resources, and avoiding unnecessary impacts on wildlands and wildlife habitat. Finding the right balance of these important policy goals is the critical path forward to getting needed lines built.

Because of their importance to overall ecosystem and community health, wildlife and ecological concerns should be considered in the earliest stages of planning for grid upgrades. Developing new methods to account for these values early in project development will minimize risks to project investors and better serve the public interest.

Historically, regional electricity transmission planning has not valued the environment. Ecological, biological, and cultural resources on the landscape are inevitably—and many times unnecessarily—impaired by electric transmission lines. Instead, project proposals have stumbled upon regulatory intervention, public opposition, and late-game litigation that has prevented efficient and effective project completion.

Changing electrical grid planning to include lands and wildlife values can save project proponents time and money, help ensure legal compliance, and can provide crucial opportunities to address stakeholders’ concerns. This approach leads to avoiding delays and building lines that protect the environment better. Not doing so can undermine the economic values from the land that benefit human and ecosystem health including clean water, clean air, and aesthetic qualities that cannot be replaced.

There is good news! New approaches and mapping technology are improving electricity transmission planning and providing the foresight needed to build good projects. There are currently planning processes going on throughout the country  that are laying the framework for developing databases for important lands and wildlife resources. This approach and these types of decision-support systems provide the means by which competing public policy objectives can be accommodated, and are essential tools in an increasingly policy-driven environment.

Balancing renewable resources and transmission development with federal and state landscape and wildlife policies is a game we can win. Recognizing and planning for the host of policy concerns that keep our ecosystems healthy and intact is the best path for protecting the environment, keeping the lights on, and forestalling controversy. If this approach is shared by regulators, the future of wilderness working with good planning is bright indeed.

Read the full article at Electric Light and Power