Blog: How Energy Transmission Affects Energy Transition

The hoped-for energy transition relies on two major pillars. The first is shifting electricity production away from fossil fuels to renewable sources like wind and solar. The second is complicated but no less important — increasing America’s ability to move that renewable electricity from where it’s generated to where it’s needed. These two pillars are often lumped together and called “electrification.”


To meet future demand envisioned by full-scale electrification, the U.S. Department of Energy calculated in 2023 that America will need a 57% growth in today’s transmission system over the next 10-20 years.


We’ve already talked about why energy addition is a more accurate term than energy transition. We’ll address production at a future date. Today, let’s focus on the issues around moving new electricity sources to growing demand locations, a process called transmission.

Achieving a swift transition to renewable electricity sources will require extensive expansion of America’s high-voltage transmission grid. According to the Energy Information Administration, the U.S. power system consists of nearly 25,000 electricity generation sources that send energy across more than 700,000 miles of transmission lines, and more than 5.5 million miles of local distribution lines. Approximately 240,000 miles of transmission lines are considered high-voltage.

That sounds like a lot, but in reality it’s just enough capacity for current needs. To meet future demand envisioned by full-scale electrification, the U.S. Department of Energy calculated in 2023 that America will need a 57% growth in today’s transmission system over the next 10-20 years. A bit of math shows that we’ll need to add about 400,000 miles of transmission capacity, including nearly 137,000 high-voltage miles — that’s like driving from New York City to Los Angeles 49 times.

That’s a big task. Let’s focus on the high-voltage part. Meeting future needs would require building more than 6,800 miles of high-voltage transmission lines per year for the next 20 years. In 2023, the U.S. built just 1,251 miles. Construction peaked at 4,250 miles in 2013 when Texas completed a $7 billion project that added 3,600 miles. The U.S. has topped 2,000 new high-voltage transmission miles just five times since 2008.

In other words, America would need to quadruple or quintuple the pace at which it’s adding new transmission capacity, and then sustain that new pace for two decades. Meanwhile, the cost of building high-voltage transmission lines has nearly tripled since 2008, according to energy infrastructure and market research firm C Three.

The total cost of meeting our future transmission needs to achieve the electrification goals policymakers have chosen is more than $540 billion. The Biden administration has created a $2.5 billion fund to build critical new transmission lines as part of the Department of Energy’s plan to invest $20 billion in modernizing and expanding the capacity of America’s power grid.

The high costs, difficulty in securing permits, and robust local opposition to infrastructure projects are major challenges to the massive grid expansions experts agree are necessary. Producing electricity and delivering it to ever growing markets is complex work that requires scientific knowledge, as well as deep expertise in engineering, logistics, supply chains, and much more. It involves understanding and acknowledging the tradeoffs required to provide electricity that’s affordable, reliable, and cleaner.

An electric grid powered by wind and solar may sound wonderful, but achieving that vision is beyond challenging — especially on the timetable being pushed. Making major changes to how the electricity used to power modern life is produced and used is complex, and it doesn’t make sense to set implausible goals with no realistic path to achieve them. A smarter energy policy would seek to use and expand existing resources and infrastructure, adding new resources as they become economically viable, and continuing to invest in technologies like carbon capture and storage.

About the Author

Joel Moxley is President & CEO of GPA Midstream and energy industry veteran. In that role, he’s a leader of the Let’s Clear the Air campaign.

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