infrastructure expenditures have risen steadily over the past
six years, and are on course to post a double-digit gain this
year as surging demand fires the need for additional
"We are in the midst of a transmission
infrastructure build-out in the United States, and that
build-out is expanding," said Edison Electric Institute (EEI)
spokesman Jim Owen. The build-out includes steel-intensive
transmission towers as well as transmission lines and
Through 1999 or 2000 there was
"considerable disinterest" on the part of utilities to invest
in transmission infrastructure, he said. "But since then they
have been making numerous moves to substantially increase their
investment, both to upgrade existing infrastructure and to
build new transmission lines and towers."
Investments in transmission
infrastructure by investor-owned utilities-comprising about 70
percent of the U.S. power utilities industry-totaled $7.75
billion last year, up 10.9 percent from $6.99 billion in 2006
and more than double the $3.66 billion invested in 2001,
according to the EEI, a Washington-based trade association
representing utility companies. Investments are expected to
jump to $8.76 billion this year, $9.62 billion in 2009 and
$10.23 billion in 2010.
The investment has been sorely needed.
"The United States is currently operating in the 21st Century
with aging 20th Century transmission infrastructure," said Nick
Braden, a spokesman for the American Public Power Association,
According to the EEI, the U.S. electric
transmission grid consists of more than 200,000 miles of
high-voltage (230 kilovolts or greater) transmission lines,
many of which are propped up by steel-laden towers, whether
lattice or pole structures.
"As our country's demand for
electricity continues to increase, the system must be expanded
and upgraded to meet the needs of our growing population and
digital economy," the EEI said. And realizing that, electric
companies have earmarked billions of additional dollars for
investment in the coming decade to "build the system to better
meet current and future demand, to alleviate congestion and to
reinforce system reliability."
Reliability is key in today's world,
Braden said, a view shared by the EEI.
"In America, we take electricity for
granted. We expect the lights to come on every time we flip the
switch. But a reliable supply of electricity is more than just
a convenience. It's a necessity. Our economy, and our way of
life, depends on it. For electric companies, maintaining a high
level of reliability requires constant commitment. They must
rely on an interconnected network of generation, transmission
and distribution systems to power our homes and businesses,"
the group said.
The majority of the earmarked
investments are designed to replace and improve the aging
transmission infrastructure, which in many cases is 50 to 60
years old, according to Klaus Bender, director of engineering
at the Utilities Telecom Council, Mesa, Ariz.
One current and future growth area is
related to the recent push for renewable energy, Owen said.
"The power being generated by wind farms and solar collectors
needs to be sent over high-voltage power lines from remote
areas to the power-consuming centers. The potential for growth
The lack of transmission infrastructure
is one thing holding back the pace of wind-power development.
"The capacity to generate power currently outpaces the ability
to transmit that power to consumers," Owen said.
While utilities are doing what they can
to increase the transmission infrastructure, their plans in
many cases have been met with resistance from residents and
municipalities in the areas that projects have been
"These projects need to be sited and
permitted and there has been an increase in NIMBYism," Owen
said, referring to the "not in my backyard" mindset of many
residents living near proposed projects. This has resulted in a
very drawn-out siting process-in some cases as long as 16
"It is part of the cosmic stalemate,"
he said. "Consumers have been increasing their use of power and
they rightfully expect their power to never go off. But at the
same time they are reluctant to do what they need to do to make
sure they have the power they need."
Part of that is "an ill-placed fear
that radiation from power lines could cause health risks,"
As far as the aesthetics of
transmission lines and towers, utilities are limited, he said,
adding that utilities really can't change the look of towers.
"What the utilities have been doing is looking at the route
which has the best chance of being approved vs. what would be
the shortest distance between Point A and Point B."
While the transmission build-out is
clearly an expensive proposition, the recent financial
crisis/credit crunch hasn't had a dampening effect, at least
not yet, given that these are long-term capital investments,
The increased cost of steel and other
raw materials has pushed project prices higher, driving some
utilities to go to state power utility commissions for rate
increases to cover the costs. "This could be a challenge, as
nobody likes higher prices," Owen said. "But I think the
regulators understand that we have no alternative."
The American Public Power Association
has been lobbying the Bush administration and Congress "to step
up to the plate and help to facilitate" funding of these
transmission infrastructure projects, Braden said. MYRA