The United States’ significant lack of transmission infrastructure is bad for Americans. It leaves people vulnerable to power outages from severe weather events. It drives up costs, leaving Americans paying more at the plug. And, it hinders the growth of abundant American energy sources and related jobs.
Familiarity with the U.S. electrical system is central to understanding the immense benefits of electrical transmission. The U.S. grid is divided into three supergrids: East, West, and Texas (ERCOT); the supergrids are subdivided into 11 regional grids, which are themselves divided into smaller local grids. The latter use low-voltage distribution lines to transport electricity to homes and businesses. Low-capacity regional transmission lines move power from energy sources to local grids, and high-capacity transmission lines move power between regional grids and supergrids. That is the point where things break down; we simply don’t have enough of these high-capacity interregional lines to keep our electricity reliable and affordable.
Severe weather events increasingly threaten America’s energy security and reliability. Recent studies have shown that weather-related incidents have caused more than 80 percent of power outages since 2000. A severe weather event can cause a grid crisis by increasing grid demand while supplies are down.
These severe weather events put a glaring spotlight on the fragility of our electrical grid. Alternatively, a resilient and reliable grid could bring in power from another region that isn’t facing the same severe weather.
Many Americans live in regions without the necessary transmission lines to give them this security. There is no better example of this than the days-long blackouts in Texas caused by Winter Storm Uri. In February 2021, the state’s vulnerable grid and lack of transmission connections to other regions played a significant part in the untimely deaths of over 246 Texans. Reports after the storm estimated that over 4.5 million people were without power and related damages of over $195 billion. Without the ability to bring in supplemental power via a robust network of transmission lines, entire regions within the U.S. could be susceptible to similar fates. Building more transmission lines not only protects against weather events, but it also provides tangible economic benefits daily.
More transmission means more jobs for American workers, economic growth for American industry, and more money in the bank for American families. Lack of transmission and rising energy costs strain the average American family. Average electric bills across the country are now almost $137 per month–3 percent of the median household’s take-home pay. Transmission infrastructure can reduce these costs by connecting more Americans to cheap and plentiful energy resources. Building more transmission lines to access low-cost clean energy generation can reduce the average household’s electricity bills by $300 per year.
Transmission also provides Americans with honest pay for honest work. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates that a 20-mile transmission line will generally create 114 construction jobs and 2 maintenance jobs. Specifically, analysis of a 180-mile transmission line from Wyoming to Colorado indicates it will create 500 construction and 70 maintenance jobs. Given the dynamic growth in the energy sector, especially in wind and solar development, some analysts project job growth of over 1.5 million jobs just in transmission and another 7.5 million jobs throughout the entire energy sector by 2050.
Transmission helps drive economic growth throughout our economy as well. The TransWest Express Transmission Project is expected to generate up to $9.5 billion dollars over the next 50 years in the Mountain-West region alone. Other more comprehensive portfolios in the Great Lakes region and along the Mississippi can reap as much as $74.8 billion in economic benefits.
Sufficient transmission infrastructure makes cheap and clean energy available to more Americans. The United States is fortunate to have abundant energy resources, including geothermal, particularly in the Rocky Mountains, high-value solar in the American Southwest, and copious wind in the Midwest and Plains states that can keep the lights on at low costs with limited pollution. Unfortunately, our power grid lacks the capacity to deliver this energy across the country.
The U.S. must build a robust transmission network to tap into these vast energy reserves. We are already generating cheap energy that gets trapped, unable to benefit households, businesses, and American industry. Once generated, electricity must be used or wasted. If there isn’t transmission capacity available to get the electricity to the consumer, producers must “sell” the energy at a negative price. Building more transmission infrastructure in these areas experiencing regular negative prices would allow that cheap power to flow to homes and businesses in neighboring regions. This would not only bring down power prices for those customers immediately, but the stable revenues for power producers would also drive more investment in energy development, creating more abundant energy and driving prices down further.
Transmission brings massive benefits to our country. It fortifies energy security against weather events and other threats, brings down costs, bolsters economic prosperity, and unlocks vast sources of clean, low-cost, made-in-America energy. Building more transmission infrastructure would extend these benefits to many more Americans and ensure that the disasters wrought by Winter Storm Uri don’t become a recurring national nightmare.
The average monthly energy bill is estimated by using 2021 usage rates per month and multiplying it by the July 2022 price per kWH: 886 kWH/month x 15.16 cents/kWH = $136.97/month.
 Take home is calculated by using the median household income in the United State as of 2021 and using a web-based take home pay calculator.
FRED Data: https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/MEHOINUSA672N
Tax calculator: https://smartasset.com/taxes/paycheck-calculator#fQvyoLIkqi
Photo credit: iStock