A transportation, infrastructure and climate priority
President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to build more clean transportation, more renewable energy and more resilient electricity infrastructure — part of a sweeping $2 trillion plan to “Build Back Better.”
These are the right proposals for America, at the right time. And the centerpiece of any successful clean energy and infrastructure plan is already sitting along America’s roadsides.
High voltage direct current transmission, or HVDC, installed underground alongside America’s world-class networks of roads and highways, is the key to unlocking a clean, prosperous, and secure energy future.
“HVDC” may not capture the imagination like soaring bridges or gleaming rail lines (which our country also needs). But it’s the missing piece in America’s energy puzzle: a network of low-cost, high-efficiency wires that can empower far-flung resources like solar, wind, geothermal and battery storage to share — and sell — their electrons not just regionally but across the country, and interconnect grids too long hamstrung by bottlenecks and outdated management systems.
It is among the single biggest steps we can take to decarbonize America’s economy — and make it more secure and resilient.
Look, for example, at California: As rolling blackouts roiled the state’s electric grid this summer, wholesale electricity prices surged past $3,800 per megawatt-hour — 100 times their typical cost. Meanwhile, across the rest of the country, prices largely hovered around the $20s to $30s.
This disaster wasn’t caused by a national energy shortage. There just wasn’t a way to efficiently get electricity to California. Decades-old chokepoints managed to bring down a swath of the U.S. economy: in this case, a state that’s the fifth-largest source of GDP in the world.
HVDC lines, with far more capacity to efficiently transport huge amounts of electricity over vast distances, would have helped prevent this disaster.
The good news is we have the playbook to build these lines: Our nation’s existing highways and railways have done the hardest part, blazing the paths that our electricity system can follow. By building alongside this world-class network of roads and rail lines, we can overhaul and expand our transmission network not only far more quickly, cheaply, and easily, but also put thousands of Americans to work virtually overnight building a more reliable, more stable, and more secure U.S. electric grid.
Highways and rail lines already hold “rights of way” that allow agencies to greenlight road-side and track-side infrastructure projects like power lines. That means no fights over land-seizures and no ugly arguments over eminent domain.
There’s also less red tape: The existing rights-of-way have already been approved for other projects, and the composition of the land well-studied, speeding the planning process. And while erecting any new structure along a highway faces any number of safety concerns to protect motorists, burying the wires removes those hurdles entirely while also better protecting the transmission system.
It’s not just about preventing disasters: By building HVDC alongside highways, the lines can be harnessed for a broad array of electrification projects, from battery backups at rest stops, public works depots and state police barracks, to electrified freight, hydrogen electrolysis stations, electric vehicle charging stations, and even dynamic wireless charging lanes.
With ready access to charging — and especially dynamic wireless charging — electric vehicles could incorporate smaller, less expensive batteries. HVDC lines would accelerate the transition to clean vehicles, innovating a home-grown solution to the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.
That’s before even considering the impact on renewables: The U.S. has vast clean energy resources, but the best places for harvesting the sun and wind are often far from city centers. With HVDC, that’s not a problem: When the morning sun is shining in the Southwest, electrons from solar can connect to East Coast workplaces that, hours ahead in the day, are hitting peak electricity usage. At night, as the wind kicks up across the Midwest, HVDC can carry electricity hundreds of miles to the West to families settling in for the evening.
HVDC is how we decarbonize America’s economy.
This is a rare opportunity to upgrade our infrastructure, one where we already have the solution, the land and the blueprint. All we need is the funding — which, whether in the form of stimulus spending or an infrastructure bill, we know is coming. Our state departments of transportation, already starved for funds by chronic under-investment and, more recently, the financial impacts of COVID-19, can start building these HVDC networks now — surging into the fast lane of a cheaper, more resilient, and more reliable energy future. Our lawmakers are in the driver’s seat; now it’s up to them to see where we go.
John D. Porcari is former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation and former Maryland Secretary of Transportation. Laura Rogers is director of strategic partnerships at The Ray, and former Sustainability and Energy Program Manager at Maryland DOT. Jigar Shah is co-founder and president of Generate Capital.