Big, Ugly Powerline For Beautiful, Clean Energy

Big electricity transmission lines are the ugly stepchild of energy. But, hey, even ugly stepchildren deserve a little love, right?

The just-completed 231-mile One Nevada Transmission Line does have something special to recommend it: It could help spur more clean energy development. That’s a key argument builders NV Energy and LS Power made for it, and the stated reason the U.S. Department of Energy helped it along with a $343 million loan guarantee.

One Nevada, ON Line

image via NV Energy

“ON Line is viewed as the transmission backbone that brings wind, solar, and geothermal energy from northern Nevada to the major-load areas, including Las Vegas,” the Loan Program Office said in an emailed statement. “ON Line is carrying renewable energy from seven geothermal projects, two solar projects, one large wind farm and a small landfill gas-to-energy project.”

The 500-kilovolt line, running from an existing substation north of Las Vegas to a new substation just west of Ely, connects the northern and southern Nevada grids, and can carry up to 600 megawatts of power.

“The One Nevada Transmission Line plays a vital role in the development of renewable energy that will benefit our customers,” Michael Yackira, NV Energy chief executive officer, said in a company release. “This project also helps to strengthen our reliability, as well as provide important dispatch capabilities that will help our customers save on energy.”

(One of the Nevada renewable power plants whose output travels through the ON Line is the new Don A. Campbell Geothermal Plant in Mineral County. Most of the plant’s 16 MW of power production are sold to utilities in Southern California, supplying electricity to about 19,000 homes.)

Lovely as all that is, transmission lines are still scars on the landscape. And they’re expensive. Could move distributed renewables development – especially distributed PV –help avoid the need for some new transmission. A big study from the Rocky Mountain Institute last year [PDF] was hopeful, but suggested it was more complicated than simply putting more panels on more roofs:

Any distributed resources, not just DPV, that can be installed near the end user to reduce use of, and congestion along, the T&D network could potentially provide T&D value. This includes technologies that allow energy to be used more efficiently or at different times, reducing the quantity of electricity traveling through the T&D network (especially during peak hours).

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.