By Tom Still
MADISON, Wis. – Almost everyone wants and needs reliable electricity, especially in an era when electric vehicles are hitting the roads in greater numbers, the digital world is ever-expanding and the “decarbonization” of energy generation is evolving in many markets.
What very few people want, on the other hand, are high-voltage transmission lines running through their backyards.
Finding better ways to deliver large amounts of electricity to millions of homes, businesses, schools and elsewhere can be partially addressed, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, by using “rights of way” along certain highways and even rail corridors for transmission.
Making better use of laws and practices that allow utilizing such physical easements, in Wisconsin as well as other states, was addressed July 26 during a Tech Council Innovation Network luncheon in Madison. Speakers said buried lines bordering major transit corridors are just part of the short-term answer but agreed the need and the ability to efficiently move electrons underground is poised to expand.
Plus, the opportunity is not confined to underground transmission of high-voltage direct current electricity. Telecommunications lines can be buried in the same rights-of-way, providing much-needed broadband connections along the route for rural areas and drivers of connected and autonomous vehicles.
“The concept is, as we build out the transmission structure, to coordinate the planning of that build to couple transmission together with broadband and EV charging – and doing it all within highways rights-of-way,” said Randy Satterfield of NextGen Highways, a group working in Wisconsin and other states.
It is not just a theory. Wisconsin is one of very few states that has allowed use of rights-of-way for transmission, spanning nearly 20 years. About 40% of all such corridors in the United States can be found in Wisconsin. As Satterfield noted, Wisconsin already has a “playbook” other states can adopt – which was addressed during a 20-state conference held last month in Minnesota.
Most of the barriers are not technical. Cables can be buried about five-feet deep and require only a small band of a typical interstate right-of-way. There are no known effects on human health due to the mitigating effect of the Earth’s magnetic field. Buried lines come with ample safety mechanisms to prevent accidental damage from excavation.
Transmission line repairs would take longer, however, and fewer states have state transportation agencies that are as accustomed to the idea as the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
The biggest advantage, other than also making room for broadband cable, is to harden the U.S. electricity grid while making it capable of moving large amounts of wind and solar power.
Existing alternating current lines are ill-suited to move large amounts of renewable power from where it is produced to where it is consumed. Groups such as the Federation of American Scientists believe the answer lies in making way for more High-Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) lines.
Higher construction cost is a likely barrier, but the time saved by not routing overhead lines through natural or populated areas could make up the difference. Why spend years fighting public opposition if there is a chance to use existing rights-of- way with fewer delays?
Whether they are produced by burning coal or natural gas, by splitting atoms or by harnessing the power of the sun and wind, electrons don’t just flow magically through the air. Barring a change in current laws of physics, they must travel from Point A to Point B.
That can be a short distance from a rooftop solar array to the building it serves, or over hundreds of miles via HVDC transmission lines. In the long haul, it may be both. For those who want to speed the switch to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, however, underground HVDC lines maybe necessary to connect those far-flung Points A and B.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.