The Transmission Line Superhighway

Daniel Gratch
October 24, 2010

Submitted as coursework for Physics 240, Stanford University, Fall 2010

Fig. 1: Plan for a theoretical 765 kV transmission line network carrying wind energy from [6]. The colored areas are regions of high wind energy density.


In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act effecting the creation of the Interstate Highway System that Americans continue to rely on till this day and hope to rely on well into the future - so long as we have enough energy to power our cars. In the years that followed Eisenhower, the incalculable surge of social and economical benefits issuing from his vision inspired energy companies, politicians, experts, and the like to dream up of plans for an analogous interstate system. The idea was to create a national energy grid comprised of vast networks of transmission lines spanning the entire continental United States. As a consequence, electrical energy could be transmitted across state borders from the locations which produce it to the markets that demand it.

The first realization of this idea came in the 60s, with particular groundbreaking developments coming from American Electric Power's introduction of the first 765-kV line in 1966, spanning seven states in the Michigan-Virginia area. [1] Most modern day iterations of the electric superhighway vision, however, center on renewable energy. The idea now is that if we can transmit over great distances the renewable energies originating from far-out locations across the country (e.g. solar energy from the deserts of Southern California, wind energy from the Great Plains, etc.) to the cities and heavy markets that demand them, we can efficiently and cleanly satisfy our growing energy demands, while at the same time helping to "develop renewable energy resources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and ... reduce dependence on foreign oil." [2] The following paper will closely examine a specific, recent example of such a project, the Potomac-Appalachian Transmission Highline (PATH), in order to highlight some barriers, which might prevent the realization of the electricity superhighway dream.

The PATH Proposal

In 2007, two private electric utility companies, Allegheny Energy and American Electric Power (AEP) announced a joint venture to construct a new high-voltage (765-kV) transmission line spanning 275 miles from southwestern West Virginia to central Maryland. According to studies conducted by the energy companies, the lines were "needed to relieve the strain on two [already existing] lines and meet the area's growing demand for electricity” [3]. Moreover, Dominion, one of the nation's largest energy corporations, predicted: "Without the congestion relief a new line would provide …the region could be hit with blackouts in 2011." [4]

Since its inception, however, PATH has faced many difficulties preventing its realization. In particular, it has met resistance in the individual state and local courts looking to protect their own citizens’ best interests. [4] It is not hard to see why. Endorsing an unsightly transmission line through West Virginia residents’ backyards is not an attractive option to most West Virginia state officials and politicians, especially when the energy is not even serving their state. Furthermore, there have been numerous allegations made and worries expressed by the general public about the health hazards associated with high power transmission lines. Because of such frictions, the PATH project has been stalled considerably over the course of its short three-year history. Many figures sympathetic to the project including some in the media have lamented this situation. The Washington Post, for example, ran an editorial on April 10, 2009 claiming that concerns about "the environment and scenic views, declining property values, health risks and the desecration of Civil War grounds" should not deter the PATH project from delivering the much needed electricity to the energy-congested relevant regions. [4] To them, the prospect of blackouts as early as 2011, as predicted by Allegheny and AEP, is far more disconcerting than NIMBY ("not-in-my-back-yard") worries.

The Renewable Energy Loophole

In early 2009, legislation proposed by Nevada Senator Harry Reid seemed to provide some firepower for PATH to fight back against the state regulators and bureaucrats. With potential national benefits reminiscent of Eisenhower's vision, Reid's Clean Renewable Energy and Economic Development Act included provisions to grant the federal government authority over the states to develop interstate transmission lines. The idea behind the bill was to facilitate the transmission of clean energy across the nation.

However, a gaping loophole in this legislation would have allowed dirty-coal companies to dress up their energy in clean clothes. The policy called "economic dispatch" dictates that the cheapest power gets to market first. According to Chris Miller, President of the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC): "If the U.S. builds new transmission lines ostensibly for clean power without changing this policy ... then coal-fired electricity from the cheapest sources - usually the dirtiest - will get to new markets first." [5] It is politically difficult to overturn this policy because, as coal is currently much cheaper then renewable energy sources, it would effectively result in increased electricity prices for the constituents of any politician who would try to fight it. Although Reid envisioned his bill to be applied to renewable energy and even included a mandate that up to 75% of the transmission lines be dedicated for such purposes, the truth remains that once the transmission lines are up, everyone would close their eyes as to where the energy originated from so long as the lights were kept on and the prices kept low.

PATH was the perfect example of such a "bait and switch" project. When the transmission line legislation was being passed around Washington, AEP loaded its website with information about clean energy. They also published in electricity magazines about plans for integrating wind energy from the Midwest using their transmission lines (see Fig. 1). [6] Yet, all the while, the biggest project on their table was PATH, a network of lines that would carry energy from West Virginia's 3,000-megawatt John E. Amos coal-fired power plant, and that according to some estimates "alone would increase greenhouse gas emissions by 7.79 million tons per year, which would be the equivalent of adding 25% more cars in Maryland." [7]


Although AEP and Allegheny never had the intention to deliver clean energy with their new lines in the Potomac-Appalachian region, with distracting ploys these energy companies were able to hide their plans as best they could. However, due to research studies done by conservation groups like the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, and the Piedmont Environmental Council revealing PATH's true dirty origins, momentum against PATH started to gain traction. In response, Allegheny and AEP scaled back their grim predictions about the energy-congestion in the Northeastern Corridor and have put a hold on their plans to construct. [8]

It also worth noting that over the past year, there are have been some important victories in the federal courts granting states back the authority over transmission line construction within their borders. See for example, Edison Electric Institute, et al., Petitioners v. Piedmont Environmental Council, et al. These victories illustrate that federal power over states is not as robust as national electric highway proponents had hoped. But others are still more hopeful. According to Sierra Club spokesperson Sarah Hodgon, as a result of this entire process, Washington learned an important lesson: "Proper transmission line planning can be an investment in a cleaner future for the U.S. However, we must do it right the first time and ensure that it's supporting clean energy and not continuing our fossil fuel addiction." [8]

© 2010 Daniel Gratch. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] M. G. Morris, "Building the Next Interstate System," Public Utilities Fortnightly, 1 Jan 06.

[2] "AEP Signs on as Corporate Sponsor of Pickens' Energy Plan," Reuters, 19 Feb 09.

[3] "High-Voltage Power Line Application Pulled in Va.," Washington Post, 10 Apr 09.

[4] "Down to the Wires; Local Resistance to Transmission Lines is Keeping Customers From Getting the Green Power They Need," Washington Post, 10 Apr 09.

[5] D. Sassoon, " Transmission Superhighway On Track to Carry Cheap, Dirty Coal Power to Northeast," SolveClimate, 24 May 09.

[6] American Energy Producers (AEP), "Interstate Transmission Vision for Wind Integration," Electricity Today, 1 Sep 07.

[7] S. Hodgon, " New Transmission Lines Require Responsible Planning," Treehugger, 16 April 2010.

[8] " Coal Power Transmission Line Off the Table," Earthjustice, 30 Dec 09.