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How to modernize America’s power grid

Good Clean Energy is a podcast that tackles one of the most existential questions of our time: how to build a world with abundant, affordable, carbon-free electricity. TAE’s Jim McNiel dives into deep conversations with experts ranging from scientists to innovators to changemakers about the challenges our current electricity systems face and updates on the race for game-changing, clean ways to power our lives.

On this episode, Jim is joined by Christina Hayes, Executive Director of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, a coalition working to expand, integrate and modernize the North American high-capacity transmission grid.

Key Takeaways

  • While America’s average energy outages aren’t high, they’re not distributed evenly across the country, meaning some places are hit harder more often.
  • Preparing the U.S. grid for new renewable energy sources also requires updating parts of the grid that are as old as 100 years.
  • As the U.S. moves away from carbon-emitting sources of power, our demand for electricity will grow aggressively.

The U.S. power grid is old. On average, it’s 40 years old — a quarter of the grid is 50 years old and there are parts that are 100 years old. And as we strive for a net-zero future, that grid is going to play a massive role.

Christina Hayes, Executive Director of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, is focused on getting our power grid to where it needs to be in order to handle renewable energy efficiently. Focusing on types of clean energy without also factoring in how we plan to distribute that energy is like “focusing on the newest shiny car without thinking about whether or not we need to pave roads,” she said.

That’s why her organization is dedicated to developing the North American high-capacity transmission grid. “As they say, there’s no transition without transmission,” Hayes said. “We gotta get it built.”

And according to Hayes, the U.S. needs to step up investment in energy infrastructure now if we’re going to get to net-zero any time soon.

“We’ve been coasting for a while on investments made in earlier decades, and we are running out of headroom.”

Jim McNiel: It’s 5:00 a.m. My brother and I get booted out of bed. You know, I’m in my footy pajamas. We all shuffle into the Volkswagen van. My dad behind the wheel, my brother and I up on the shelf in the back, looking out the back window. My sister taking up as much of the seat as she can below us. We head down the road. California to Iowa. Long drives. Fall asleep. Wake up. One morning, the sun’s coming up. The light is coming through the window. It’s like this golden amazing light. You know, I’m the only one awake except for my dad behind the wheel. And I look out the window and there’s this hill, it’s just aglow. I mean, it’s like this golden, huge orb. And I see these huge high tension power lines going into it. And I’m like, “Wow, why did they light up that hill? It’s incredible.” Obviously it wasn’t a light bulb, it was the sun. I saw it rise in a few minutes more as we cruised down the highway.

Those transmission lines, they’re pretty important. They deliver electrons around the world, just hundreds and thousands of miles of copper. Without ’em, life wouldn’t be as golden as it is.

Today, we’re joined by Christina Hayes, the executive director of a nonprofit focused on connecting renewables to our current power grid. It’s called Americans for a Clean Energy Grid.

We know that the grid is fragile. We know that it’s old. We know it needs to be updated, needs to be upgraded, it needs to be smarter, it needs to be hardened against cyber intrusion and things of that nature.

But what if we did build a grid that could easily connect with new renewable resources, whether they’re out in the middle of the Arizona desert or just around the corner of the Vermont field? And what if we did have the ability to completely complement the fossil fuel power that we’re producing today with clean, renewable energy? We could use more, we could pollute less, and we would have more resiliency and fewer outages.

I’m Jim McNiel, and this is Good Clean Energy.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

Getting energy from point A to point B

McNiel: It’s really great to have you here today talk about America’s power grid, but I think I’d like to start with what actually a power grid is. You know, I don’t think anyone, other than the fact they say, “Oh, it must be the wires that come to my house, right?” You know, what are the major components of the power grid? And how does it break down?

Hayes: Actually, that’s a good point. The wires that come to your house are not part of the transmission system. That’s distribution. So, if you think about your basic energy system, right? You have your generating facilities — that can either be the dam, if you’re from the Pacific Northwest, it can be a power plant, it can be wind and solar. Then that ends up getting transmitted a long distance by transmission lines. That’s generally anything that’s 100 KV or larger. It can be very large, it can be 765 KV. So there are different sizes, and then it gets stepped down to a substation, and then it gets distributed to your home through distribution lines. And there are different companies that are involved in each step of the way, and different levels of regulation

McNiel: Right, and the reason that we get as high as 765,000 volts of electricity is why? Why do we need to get up to that level of power?

Hayes: In order to send it long distances with lower losses. Especially where you have really great generation sources that need to go to a high concentration of customers. So to big cities, for instance, or an industrial site.

McNiel: So if you’re going from a large nuclear facility or a large hydroelectric dam like, say, Lake Mead and Hoover Dam out in the middle of the desert, you need to step it up to high power so you can go over great distances of transmission lines?

Hayes: Absolutely. The generation isn’t always located right next to where the customers are, so you need to get it from point A to point B.

McNiel: So you step it up, and then you step it down when you get to your destination so that you can deal with power that’s a little bit more manageable. Right?

Hayes: Absolutely. You have to be able to get it to the customers’ doorstep.

McNiel: So, you know, I looked at some data and it said that between — well, the average outage for the American customer is like 1.3 times a year. So most people around the world would think, “Hey, that’s pretty good. You know, you only lose power for five hours a year on average. Gosh, I wish I had that.” So what’s wrong with our grid?

“Wouldn’t it be great if the average applied evenly across the country? But as you know, it doesn’t always.”

Hayes: Wouldn’t it be great if the average applied evenly across the country? But as you know, it doesn’t always. So in some places where it might be short for customers who don’t have a high degree of sensitivity to the quality of electricity, it might be okay. If you think about, you know, your cell phone drops once in a while, but as we know, there are folks who are much more sensitive to the quality of electricity: if you are a manufacturing facility, if you’re a hospital. You know, certain customers need a higher degree of quality. Also, there are some places, as you know, that have longer outages than others. I mean, unfortunately, the big example is Winter Storm Uri and how it impacted Texas. You know, if you compare how the outages were in the Midwest, they had outages of a couple of hours, and they were able to kind of move it around the region, so nobody was out for too long. However, when you looked at Texas, they were out for several days and had much more dramatic impacts, you know, pipes frozen, homes — people weren’t able to stay warm. They had, really, a much more difficult outcome.

The U.S. grid’s three major regions

McNiel: Well, it’s really interesting that you bring up the Republic of Texas in that we have, what, three major parts of our national grid, which is the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection, and Texas.

Hayes: Indeed.

McNiel: Right? So, Texas is a bit of its own little power community, right? They do their own generation, they do their own distribution, and they’re not really connected to the upper part of the grid, are they?

Hayes: That’s right. And for better or for worse, you know. Texas has been able to engage in a lot of really interesting experiments where they have a lot more control over their system. They did a terrific job of identifying where the renewable resource zones were and building out transmission to those zones. They were really a pioneer in that area. But as time has gone on, there are more and more draws on the system and they don’t have the generation to keep up. And that’s where having connections to your neighbors, being able to go over and ask for help in times of need, is really helpful. And so they don’t have the interconnections to the Western Interconnect and the Eastern Interconnect.

Newscast audio: It’s great to have you with us here this Tuesday night. And as we come on the air tonight, the emergency unfolding across several states, millions without electricity in Texas and elsewhere across the South.

This morning, Arctic air, power grids failing and millions left to cope with the bitter cold. Amarillo, Texas, getting pummeled with snow overnight. Cars and trucks sliding off the road. Tow trucks out rescuing drivers as temperatures drop near zero. Part of the Lone Star State hitting record-low temperatures not seen in a century and people are cranking up the heat, which is taxing the state’s electrical system, leading to cascading power outages and rolling blackouts. This morning more than 3 million waking up without power. ‘This is tragic. We haven’t had power since 5 a.m. yesterday.’ The cold and loss of power …

Hayes: Again, when you have an emergency like the storm in 2021, they weren’t able to draw on some of the low-cost energy that was available with their neighbors. Because by having those interconnections, it makes them subject to federal jurisdiction and they really like maintaining their exclusion from federal jurisdiction. So, pros and cons, but it’s awfully tough to see the pros lately.

Americans for Clean Energy Grid’s mission

McNiel: What is the mission of your organization?

Hayes: Americans for Clean Energy Grid is a diverse coalition of organizations that support the buildout of high-capacity transmission. So we include organizations — environmental organizations, labor unions, clean energy buyers, also renewable resource developers, traditional transmission developers, some utilities, as well as merchant transmission developers. So it’s a broad coalition looking at the policies that we need to advocate for to support the buildout of a macro-grid in the United States. As they say, there’s no transition without transmission. We gotta get it built.

McNiel: So is that the angle? I mean is the angle renewable resources? Connecting our existing grid and improving our existing grid to be able to accommodate new renewable resources? Is that the main objective?

Hayes: So, yes. In the long-run, it’s going to take a transition. It’s not going to be done overnight, so it has to be done well. So the first step is planning. So comprehensive regional and inter-regional transmission planning across the United States. And that’s going to require participation from utilities and stakeholders in every community to plan out a comprehensive high-capacity transmission system.

The next step is the permitting, of course, which can take — in some cases, I’ve seen it take 15, 18 years. It’s really not easy. So getting that shortened up to something that’s more manageable, something that developers are able and willing to take on, something that doesn’t bankrupt everyone in its path, and then actually getting the transmission built. And so it’s integrating the renewable resources in a way that is reliable, right? So we have to manage the solar when the sun shines, against the wind when the wind blows, and making sure that we have capacity for every hour of the day when customers want to use it. So it also means integrating storage, hydro, geothermal. There are a lot of resources that are going to be needed to make this transition work.

McNiel: And I take it, it’s more than just getting a connection between a wind farm out in North Dakota to the grid. I mean, there are some elements of the grid that you think need to be changed or improved. Is that true?

Hayes: Yes. The hardest part really is focusing on the high capacity piece. So, where you have lower barriers to siting and building lower-voltage transmission. And certainly those pieces are needed for liability. Everybody has to undertake those, but the higher capacity pieces are harder to build. And so that’s really what we’ve been focused on. So, making sure that the wind farm in North Dakota is able to get access to places where it’s needed, places where it’s balancing solar or other resources, to get that geographic diversity to support reliability of the grid.

So as we move towards resources that don’t have a fuel cost, the generation part of the bill is going to get much, much cheaper. The transmission piece is going to go up, but the overall bills, we think, are going to levelize and go down. So it is kind of a changing look at how the grid works, but something that’s much more sustainable for the future, not just from a resource, you know, dig-up-the-coal, get-the-gas point of view. But from an environmental point of view, from a financial point of view, this changing over to the high-capacity transmission for the remotely located resources really is the wave of the future.

“Changing over to the high-capacity transmission for the remotely located resources really is the wave of the future.”

McNiel: Now, I don’t think it’s enough. I mean, even if you could wave a wand and have interconnects that reached out to the locations where these renewable facilities are, that doesn’t seem like enough for the grid. I mean, you obviously have other priorities. I mean, we need to harden our grid. We need to protect our grid. We need to update it. I mean, we’ve got parts of our grid that are over 100 years old, right?

Hayes: Very true. The grid is an average of 40 years old, more than a quarter of it is 50 years old. And like you said, those 100-year-old pieces have unfortunately very visibly contributed to some real challenges, real tragedies, in California in particular around wildfires. So there’s a need to look at making sure that we have a robust grid. The best quote I’ve heard around this is, “The best way to make sure that no critical facilities are impacted is to make sure that no facilities are critical.”

McNiel: Basically design for redundancy, is what you’re saying. Resiliency, redundancy.

Hayes: Yes, absolutely.

McNiel: Do you think most Americans appreciate how lucky we are to have access to constant, on-demand power, and what would happen if we didn’t?

Hayes: We take it for granted. We really do. And you know, so much has been made of getting access to different kinds of generation resources, but we don’t think about how we’re going to get it to where it needs to go. It’s like focusing on the newest shiny car without thinking about whether or not we need to pave roads. So we do need to think about all of the pieces all together. If we have the transmission, distribution, generation, and storage all together to make the system work — not just for what it looks like now, but what’s the system going to look like 20 years from now? What kind of new needs and demands are going to be on the system?

Electricity demands of a net-zero future

McNiel: OK, here you go, Christina. This is one for you. Think about what happens when ChatGPT becomes commonplace and people are using it for every day. You know, we think that cryptocurrency takes a lot to compute. Just think what’s going to happen when we got these AI machines running around doing all this thinking and writing reports and essays and news and so forth. I mean, who knows what that’s going to require.

“It’s like focusing on the newest shiny car without thinking about whether or not we need to pave roads.”

Hayes: And in electric vehicles, it’s going to require a ton of new electricity service. And so are we going to be there to meet the challenge?

McNiel: I heard an executive at Amazon who is involved in AWS — their web services business — and they have a really tremendous amount of data center capacity, and they’re trying to be net-zero and not just with their data centers, but also with their employees and their whole corporate footprint. And so there’s a lot of electric vehicles coming in and charging stations. And they said that they’re modeling it out, that when they actually get to where they want to be, the amount of power that’s going to be required to charge employee vehicles is going to be equal to or greater than what their data centers are currently using.

Hayes: Wow! Yeah.

McNiel: And that brings up a really good point with what you’re doing. The grid that we have today is not sufficiently capable of supporting an electric vehicle future in the United States.

Hayes: That’s right. Yeah. I saw a statistic, something like, if we’re going to build out electric vehicles, it’s going to increase load by something like 45%. I mean, it’s huge.

McNiel: If every single home now goes from consumption of 10 kilowatts a day to 110 kilowatts because they’re charging their vehicles. Not that they’re going to have to do a full charge every day, but what happens if everyone comes home from a three-day weekend? Their cars are on empty. They all come home, they plug them in. They melt down their local substation because there’s just not enough capacity to support it.

Hayes: Absolutely. I mean, I think a lot of innovative solutions are trying to be employed around, changing the timing of the charge, so that it can be kind of averaged out, if in the dead of night when not a lot of lights are on, we can move more the timing of our charge around to level it out a bit, that’s helpful. But there’s only so much we can do with technology. There’s a lot we can do, but we certainly also need the infrastructure to get us there.

Progress on the legislative front

McNiel: So what kind of progress are you making? I mean, I imagine there’s a lot of legislative work going on. I mean, what’s happened so far that makes you feel optimistic that you’re making progress?

Hayes: There are several things that have me optimistic. So, the Inflation Reduction Act was huge for new resources. Very exciting. But it also showed that if we don’t have the transmission to meet it, that actually greenhouse gas emissions will go up as a result of the IRA unless we double the pace of building transmission.

McNiel: And does the taxpayer pay for that?

Hayes: So right now, the way our transmission system is built out, it’s allocated to customers, but we need to make it make sense. Right now, the costs are pretty daunting. So it’s kind of discouraging. Being optimistic, though, there are a lot of great new technologies out there that can be deployed on existing transmission lines, so that’s exciting. One of the reasons I use the word high-capacity, instead of high-voltage is if we start deploying superconductor technologies on existing lines, that would be great. Can we add another line, another circuit to existing transmission facilities — there’s some potential there. But really what we’re going to need and what did not go well last year for transmission, is to build out new facilities around the country. So in the Midwest, they’re looking at approving some new lines. They’re showing that the benefit to cost ratio is something like 2:1, so there’s a huge return on investment for these facilities.

“We need to not just get that power to the customers, but make sure we have the geographic diversity to ensure the reliability angle.”

McNiel: So typically when you have an organization like yours, there’s usually an opposition. I can’t imagine who would have an argument against what you’re trying to do. Is there anybody who sees the world differently than you do in terms of improving the quality of the power grid in the United States?

Hayes: Oh, I like your optimism. The challenge is that it really is changing how the system works. Historically it was more about having locally sourced generation that was much easier to get to local customers. And so as we’re looking at renewable resources, which can be remotely located from customers, we need to not just get that power to the customers, but make sure we have the geographic diversity to ensure the reliability angle.

McNiel: Are there existing generation companies that feel that the wind and solar is competitive and they’re going to lose market share and they don’t like these guys getting connected? Are they using the transmission network as a weapon against new competitors?

Hayes: Yes. And really the worst example is in New England where they were proposing a transmission line to bring hydro down from Quebec into the Boston area. And there was a significant campaign by existing generators who enjoy a high price for their energy in New England. And they fought and won against the proposed transmission line.

So transmission does have tremendous benefits for customers in every part of the country for reliability. There should be broad support, but everybody wants to look at it through their own lens. And it’s tough because the parties are really kind of pulling at each other, but we’re trying to find ways to unify them around this infrastructure that’s needed for the future.

McNiel: Do you have to shock politicians to have them understand that if we have 10 or 20 days of no power, that all the insulin goes bad and the diabetics are in stress and the antibiotics go bad and the hospitals can’t operate, and the senior homes’ generators don’t work. If this happens in the summer when the temperatures in Texas are getting up above 110 degrees and you have a wet-bulb event, I mean, these things are not theoretical. These things are quite practical. And if we don’t have power in times of extreme heat, especially in the Southwest, we’re going to lose American lives.

“We’re trying to find ways to unify them around this infrastructure that’s needed for the future.”

Hayes: Truly

McNiel: I think it is a bipartisan thing. I think it’s for the betterment of residential and commercial parties. The fact that you’re driving it to connect renewables is icing on the cake, but it’s not necessarily bad for anyone else because we need a larger, smarter, higher capacity, smarter grid. I think the true religion of planet Earth is economics. I think if you want something to happen, you’ve got to make sure that there are people that can make money making it happen. And I think if you want people to adopt clean energy on a massive scale in terms of maybe home production using solar and things like that, you need to allow them to participate in the economic value of that.

And so if you have a model where I have solar on my roof and I could take the power from that, put it in a local battery or put it in a mobile battery such as my Rivian truck, and then at some point when I’m driving around have someone say, “Hey, if you park your Rivian at this place and plug it in, you could augment the power drain that’s going on in California right now because we’re going to have rolling blackouts because we don’t have enough power.”

But the fact we have tens of thousands of cars running around with 100 kilowatts of power that are only using a small percentage of it, they can kind of back up the grid. Now if everyone could participate in that, and I get paid because I’m generating energy and I’m contributing it back to the grid, wouldn’t that be a good thing?

Hayes: That would be really exciting. That would also require a lot of technological upgrades to the distribution system. So our grid would have to get a lot smarter to be able to take in inputs from all of these different locations, as well as just send it out in kind of a web form, which is how it’s been done historically.

McNiel: Our grid needs a digital ledger. What we need is a blockchain that’s not proof of work, but proof of stake, that can allow everybody to be on there as one who’s a consumer of electrons or a producer of electrons or both, and you just get to participate in the economy of it. I think that would be amazing.

Hayes: That would be exciting and to make sure that everybody was there when they needed to be, when they’re required to be. Right. Utilities are used to having this obligation to keep the lights on for every last customer to every last minute. And that is an obligation they take very seriously. And so harmonizing all of these new assets and these new attributes, to continue to meet those requirements would be really important.

What’s next for the U.S. grid

McNiel: So what are the big initiatives for you in the years ahead?

Hayes: We are trying to build out the high-capacity system. Looking out 20 years, what are going to be some of the changes in the needs of the system. So that’s the first step. Permitting needs to be done in a way that is much more efficient. Kind of coordinating both federal and state permitting and done in such a way that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and to make sure the tunnel doesn’t go on forever. So, a lot of outreach to stakeholders and making sure that siting and permitting can take place within a fixed period of time — three to five years. And then making sure that things get built. So making sure that the financing, the paying aspects are there. We definitely know where the future is headed, and so we have to build the transmission system for the resources that we’re going to have. I always think about it in terms of my teenage boys. You know, I could buy the clothes for the size they used to be, or I could buy the clothes for the size they’re going to be. And so I keep building bigger, and I think we need to build the grid bigger.

McNiel: And if they look just a little bit sloppy fashion-wise, because they don’t fit into their jacket yet, that’s OK. Because–

Hayes: It’s the transition.

McNiel: When they’re full-grown men, they’re going to look really sharp.

I haven’t seen the United States invest in infrastructure in a serious way in quite some time. I mean, the most recent infrastructure bill I think is one of the biggest things in decades. But if you want to compare it to what was happening under FDR’s New Deal with the formation of the Hoover Dam and the interstate highway system, and state-to-state electrical systems, we really haven’t had the political will to invest in these things. And it’s going to cost us as a nation, because we’re not going to have the infrastructure we need to be ready for this electrical transition.

“We’ve been coasting for a while on investments made in earlier decades, and we are running out of headroom.”

Hayes: We’ve been coasting for a while on investments made in earlier decades, and we are running out of headroom. We’re running out of room. And especially if we start building these extra facilities, as you were saying, these extra data farms and the Bitcoin miners and ChatGPT and electric vehicles and all of these pieces, we are simply going to run out of headroom. We have to build more transmission.

Imagining 2050’s power grid

McNiel: So Christina, the year is 2050, we have literally dozens or even maybe hundreds of fusion power plants deployed around America. That’s my vision for the future. And there’s lots of wind and there’s lots of solar, and we’re throwing a party every time we decommission a natural gas or coal plant. What does the power grid look like?

Hayes: We also have a lot more needs on the system, right? We have electric vehicles, we have data farms. We have a lot more electricity then also to offset some of the resources that have been retired. So we will have high-capacity transmission throughout the country. HVDC that connects different neighborhoods or different communities across the country.

McNiel: I’m sorry, what is that? HVDC, what is that?

Hayes: High-voltage direct current.

McNiel: High-voltage direct current. So wait, as opposed to alternating current? Tell us why we need to go to DC, because we can carry it further faster?

Hayes: Absolutely. So that we connect the different regions. So that we have the diversity of resources across regions. For one thing, we have solar that peaks in different parts of the country, right? We can chase the sun to the West. We can also offset solar with wind and other resources. The resources that you are talking about.

McNeil: Fusion.

Hayes: Also, hydro, geothermal, and others. Absolutely.

McNeil: Fusion.

Hayes: And fusion, as you’ve noted. And so we’ll be able to transmit that energy from region to region with much lower losses, and then have it distributed much more efficiently around each region to the customers.

McNiel: And hopefully, over time, we’re going to save so much money on cheap energy that we’re going to be able to go to all the neighborhoods around the country and bury those local distribution lines so we could don’t have that ugly, unsightly power line that falls out at the breath of a wind. We’re just going to get rid of all that stuff. We’ll bury the fiber for the internet and for TV and we’ll put the power lines down there and we’ll just make everything all clean and beautiful

Hayes: I like it. Does the sun always shine?

McNiel: And that way we can charge our vertical takeoff, landing drones and fly into New York City in 10 minutes and land on top of buildings. That’s going to be super cool. my “AirUber.”

Hayes: I like it.

McNiel: Well, Christina Hayes, I think this was super educational and I think everyone needs to know that if they want to enjoy clean energy, they’re going to have to deal with the fact we have to carry it from where it gets generated to where it gets used, and that seems to be a really important factor. So thank you for doing what you do.

Hayes: Thank you so much.


McNiel: I think we should understand clearly that our grid is old. It’s been around for a long time. It needs to be updated. We need to invest in it. If we don’t, we’re going to have the outages that none of us enjoy. But if Christina’s vision comes true, if we can connect remote solar and wind farms to complement the energy that we’re already producing, if we can make our grid more resilient and stronger and more renewable, then we’re looking at a much brighter future.

Thank you for listening to Good Clean Energy.

Good Clean Energy is edited and produced by Jennifer Hsu. Mixing and sound design by Wade Strange and Mike Clemow at SeeThruSound. Digital production by Katherine Wiles.

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