Power grid needs trillions in updates to maintain reliability, utilities say
BY ROD WALTON World Staff Writer
Sunday, May 13, 2012
5/13/12 at 3:29 AM
Forget the high-voltage stars like Brad and Angelina. Transmission and reliability are America's true power couple.
And both significant others bound together in the national electrical grid are in danger of a split, if governmental and industrial warnings are any indication.
Transmission and reliability need to stay with each other, but it's going to take lots of money.
"New demand and new resources are creating quite a strain on our grid," said Lanny Nickell, vice president of engineering for the nine-state regional transmission organization Southwest Power Pool. "We do believe the grid is somewhat outdated and needs some enhancement."
Oklahoma and the rest of the U.S. is heading into another summer, only one year removed from the worst heat wave in three decades. Critics of utilities do not cut much slack when lines go down and outages occur, so the power companies are expected to keep their part of the grid in tip-top shape and still keep rates low.
This Catch-22 covers much of the 200,000 or so miles in the U.S. transmission line network. Transmission are those high-voltage lines - 345 kilovolts, for example - that travel from the generation plant to substations; distributions are smaller lines from the substation to residential, industrial and commercial customers.
A 2010 study by consultants Harris Williams and Co. estimated that 50 percent of distribution poles are 30 to 50 years old, near the end of their life cycle. Replacing 1 to 2 percent of those distribution miles would cost between $3 billion and $6 billion annually, the report concluded.
Annual spending on replacing or upgrading transmission line systems averages about $10 billion every year, according to Harris Williams and Co.
Modern demand, meanwhile, has escalated: Electricity accounted for 8 percent of total U.S. energy use in 1970 but has more than doubled since then, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
Ticking time bombs
This demand growth brings many questions, but the answer to all of them ultimately is financial.
"The electric utility industry needs to spend about $2 trillion over the next two decades just to refurbish the existing grid," new American Electric Power CEO Nick Akins said last month at his company's annual shareholders meeting in Tulsa.
American Electric Power is parent company of AEP-PSO, which supplies power to nearly 600,000 customers throughout Oklahoma, including Tulsa. AEP-PSO owns and operates 22,043 miles of distribution lines and 3,628 miles of transmission lines statewide.
The utility's budget for distribution maintenance alone is $82 million annually. The majority of power poles are wooden, which is susceptible to dry rot, ultraviolet rays, heat, freeze, overvoltage and even woodpeckers.
"They're like a ticking time bomb," said Steve Baker, AEP-PSO's vice president for distribution.
The utility's key maintenance job is constant upkeep to make sure that bomb rarely goes off. In 2011 alone, AEP-PSO's system was forced to endure blizzards, record cold and an onslaught of all-time high temperatures, capping a relentless summer with peak usage of 4,411 megawatts on Aug. 3.
"There was a weeklong period where we broke the record and set a new one three or four times," AEP-PSO spokesman Stan Whiteford pointed out.
Another summer is coming, and utility line crews are hitting the road trying to see problems before they happen. AEP-PSO inspected about 2,400 miles of its distribution system last year and should keep that pace in 2012.
"That's a proactive activity to look for areas that need to be replaced," Baker said.
Some even raised the specter of a national power outage or terrorism victimizing the grid. AEP-PSO's Baker doesn't see that happening, pinning the 2003 Northeast outage on breaker- and tree-trimming-maintenance issues and not demand challenges.
"There's bound to be places where substantial demand bottlenecks arise," he said. However, "a national outage would take a number of things; coincidence would play a part. There's a lot of fail safes between the intercepts of the different power grids."
Keeping up with demand
Nickell, from the Southwest Power Pool's engineering group, might agree that under-investment is threatening the national grid. Yet he pointed out that SPP recently approved transmission projects totaling $1.7 billion over the next decade.
The grid decline is mainly a regional problem, with some areas more open to spending big on generation and transmission than others, he added. This conflict is one reason why Nickell doesn't put much stock in the idea of a new, high-voltage network built much like the interstate highway system in President Eisenhower's era.
"With this super highway idea, you have different utilities across the nation with different approaches," he said. "The challenge to that is somebody's got to pay for the cost of that infrastructure.
"If utilities aren't approaching the problem with the same degree of aggression, then probably they are not willing to pay for their share. That's why there's a challenge to get something like that built."
Ten years ago, the U.S. Department of Energy warned about the dangers of an aging grid and lack of generation investment amid growing demand.
"There is growing evidence that the U.S. transmission system is in urgent need of modernization," the May 2002 federal report read.
Today's experts don't doubt that need still exists and remains crucial. Nonetheless, they are not as fearful of an outage apocalypse and believe the system is hanging in there.
But that's not good enough.
"It behooves all of us to increase our awareness," Nickell said. "In today's world, perhaps we haven't spent enough to improve transmission."
Original Print Headline: High-voltage dilemma
Rod Walton 918-581-8457
A report says maintenance of just 1 percent to 2 percent of aging distribution lines would cost between $3 billion and $6 billion annually. COURTESY / AEP-PSO
"The electric utility industry needs to spend about $2 trillion over the next two decades just to refurbish the existing grid," new American Electric Power CEO Nick Akins said last month at the company's annual shareholders meeting in Tulsa. COURTESY / AEP-PSO