Navigant Research Blog

New Transmission Replaces Retiring Coal Plants

James McCray — December 23, 2014

In my drive across the country last summer, two unexpected features of the landscape stood out.  First, driving across Nevada and Utah, the silhouette of coal power plants frequently loomed on the horizon.  Second, the sweeping vistas almost anyplace across the western half of the United States now almost always include electric transmission towers and power lines. The recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Clean Power Plan (CPP) will certainly change that landscape, as aging coal generation plants are retired and dismantled. Driving between Green River and Provo, Utah, I passed through a beautiful canyon and within a few hundred yards of the Price Canyon coal-fired plant, which is scheduled for retirement due to age, EPA compliance regulations, and a constrained location.

If the EPA plan is implemented as currently written, there will be an increase in transmission planning and spending as the transmission grid is reconfigured to address coal generation plant retirements and new transmission capacity is required to deliver wind and solar resources to utilities in other parts of the country.

Out of the West

In previous Navigant Research blogs, I have discussed the development of a north-south transmission highway between the northern Midwest wind farms and the population centers in Nebraska, Kansas, and Texas.  However, coal plant retirements across the lower Midwest, East Coast, and southeastern U.S. will have a serious impact on electric reliability across those regions, according to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). Forward-thinking electric transmission companies are anticipating this and are now building new west-to-east transmission to deliver wind power from the High Plains to population centers in the Midwest and Southeast that will be hit hard by the retirements.

In November, the Rock Island Clean Line LLC filed petitions with the Iowa Utilities Board to obtain new electric transmission line franchises.  Rock Island plans to construct, maintain, and operate an electric transmission line across 16 Iowa counties.  The project is an approximately 500-mile overhead, high-voltage direct current (DC) transmission line that will deliver 3,500 MW of wind energy generation from northwest Iowa to cities in Illinois and other eastern states.

When you look at the distribution of existing coal-fired generation plans across the United States, it’s easy to imagine where additional new transmission lines will be needed. The map below shows the distribution of the coal generation fleet across the United States.

Coal Power Plant Locations and Size, United States: September 2014

(Source: Energy Velocity Maps)

Perhaps another transmission superhighway, using ultra-high-voltage alternating current and high-voltage DC transmission lines to move energy from the High Plains to the Midwest and Southeast, will take shape in the coming years.

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