By definition it is arguable whether the United States of America is now the only superpower in the world – China and, following more recent events, Russia? Having said that, the USA is still the largest and most technologically powerful global economy. It is also the world’s biggest energy consumer, but even that somewhat dubious title is at risk because according to projections from the International Energy Agency, within the next 2-3 years China will overtake the US as the world’s biggest energy guzzler.
If we focus on electricity consumption, the US is the largest consumer in North America and is likely to remain so. The Energy Information Administration forecast that America’s generation will increase steadily, at an average annual rate of 1.4 per cent, to 2030, with coal, nuclear power and natural gas fired power plants meeting most of the growth in demand.
Unfortunately, what does not appear to be world class is its national transmission grid. The phrase “third world grid” coined by former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, now governor of New Mexico, although somewhat melodramatic does have an element of truth behind it.
Who, for example, could forget the massive widespread power outage that occurred throughout parts of the Northeast and Midwest of the country, and as far north as Ontario, Canada, in 2003It was the largest blackout in North American history and was the result of a massive power fluctuation causing the transmission grid to collapse.
There is a growing chorus in the US that there has been chronic under investment in the country’s national transmission system and that it is becoming overburdened, and therefore unstable. There are also calls for the grid to be expanded. This is especially true when you consider that generation from renewable energy sources, such as remote wind farms, looks set to increase.
A recent White Paper written by Edward Krapels, the chairman of Anbaric Holdings LLC, advocates the development of an interstate extra high voltage transmission system. However, this would be no easy task, not least because, according to the General Accountability Office, America’s network infrastructure comprises $1trillion in assets, including 330 000 km of transmission lines that transmit over 800 GW of power to more than 300 million people. There is also the continued resistance to new infrastructure development from a number of environmental groups.
However, it is not all doom and gloom. Earlier this year, a major transmission proposal, which will stretch almost 400 km through the states of Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, won over a key regulatory body. Once up and running the 500 kV project will help to increase the reliable flow of electricity across the eastern United States.
Furthermore, after many years of promise and disappointment the world’s first superconducting power cable was energized in June. The high temperature superconductor cable system is installed at the Long Island Power Authority’s power grid, and can transmit up to 574 MW. This technology offer real hope for congested metropolitan power grids. PEi was there for the inauguration (p.32)
Another encouraging sign last month was when Barak Obama promised to modernize the national utility grid, as part of his proposed energy policy. Whether this promise comes to fruition or not will be decided on 4 November.
Although it is clear that the US has a steep hill to climb before it brings its national transmission system slap bang into the 21st century, there are positive signs. And I’m sure no one wants a repetition of the 2003 Northeastern Blackout, which cost the country dearly estimates put it at $6 billion.