Plans at the national level to crisscross the country with transmission lines, connecting the sunniest deserts with the biggest cities, may sound like a good green idea, but it is too good to be true. In the foreseeable future building long distance transmission lines will undermine clean energy more than it will help it. Building the lines will increase our reliance on coal energy, decrease the overall efficiency of the grid, and misappropriate money that would be better spent developing local renewable energy sources.
Building transmission lines for renewable energy, before building the renewable energy is not only putting the cart before the horse. More accurately it is using the cart to block the horses in the stable. The lines may be intended for wind and solar, but until wind and solar become a more significant part of our energy mix, the lines will be used to carry coal energy.
Coal produces the cheapest energy and the more coal energy utilities can push into the New York/New Jersey area the more money they can make. Improving the access of coal energy to east coast markets will almost guarantee that the oldest and dirtiest coal plants will stay on line for longer than they should. The Sierra Club is currently fighting more than 100 proposed coal plants around the country. Improving access will add an incentive for approving these plants.
This scenario already exists; PSE&G has proposed an expansion to the Susquehanna-Roseland Transmission Line from Pennsylvania into North West New Jersey. One of their selling points is that some day it could carry wind power, but not yet. More likely the two new coal plants that have been proposed near the Pennsylvania end of the line will be approved. The line expansion will have the potential to move at least 3,000 MW of energy from Pennsylvania and other coal states into or through New Jersey. In addition there are proposals for at least four other transmission lines in the state to move cheap dirty energy to the best paying markets.
Reducing our coal consumption is a critical piece of mitigating global warming. Coal produces twice as much greenhouse gases as natural gas. Furthermore, burning coal puts mercury into the atmosphere. New Jersey is downwind from Pennsylvania and that mercury lands in our streams, reservoirs, fisheries and eventually makes its way into us. Pennsylvania's coal plants are already the reason for fish advisories in the Highlands Region. When it rains, nitrous oxide from the coal plants puts nitrogen into our water ways causing eutrophication. Furthermore, the environmental effects of mountain top removal can never be remediated.
Yesterday the federal government proposed 3.4 billion for the startup costs of building these lines, but by the time they are done it could cost well over 100 billion of taxpayer dollars. The irony is if the money allocated for transmission lines was spent on distributive renewable energy we wouldn't even need the lines. PSE&G is proposing to spend 700 million of ratepayer dollars on the S-R Transmission line project alone. To really promote clean energy that money should be spent on short transmission lines for offshore wind or on wind and solar projects themselves.
Distributive generation will do better in guarding against black outs, will create green jobs here in New Jersey, and is far more efficient investment. Long distance transmission lines can lose up to 20% of the energy they carry. Long distance transmission lines are not the same thing as smart grid, which uses computers to monitor and move energy around the grid. This proposal is for big — 150 foot tall towers could be standard — dumb lines that will inefficiently bring dirty power and undermine clean energy.
But New Jersey already knows this; we have some of the toughest clean energy goals on the books. The plan states that by 2020, New Jersey should become and energy exporter and produce more than 121% of its energy in-state. In this vision wind, biomass, solar, and refuse account for 30% of our energy and the state's overall energy demand is reduced by 20%.
If the state follows through on the rules and regulations it has already passed New Jersey does not need the additional energy that these transmission lines will bring. And, if Congress is serious about addressing climate change they won't fund transmission lines that will by bring cheap dirty coal at the expense of renewable energy.
Jeff Tittel is the director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.