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Transmission for Renewables: Cheaper and Greener Than Natural Gas Pipelines


Reducing carbon emissions, boosting energy and water resource efficiency, creating green jobs and boosting local economies, and reducing waste and the potential for conflicts – numerous studies, and actual results – have shown the substantial triple bottom line benefits of bringing renewable energy systems and power transmission infrastructure online.

When it comes to energy, the U.S. has thrived on fossil fuels, however. Expanding to become the largest, most profitable multinational businesses in history, U.S. oil and gas companies have conveyed dependence on, as well as the costs and benefits of, these fossil fuels globally. Along the way, securing steady, affordable supplies of oil and natural gas became the central pillar of U.S. national security, as well as energy, policy.

Our ongoing dependence on, and affinity for, oil and natural gas shows through clearly in numerous instances, one of the most controversial of which is the proposed construction of Keystone XL, as well as numerous other natural gas pipelines. According to recent industry-unaffiliated studies, however, investing in renewable energy transmission infrastructure would not only be better from environmental and social perspectives, but it would also be a lot cheaper and give the U.S. a much bigger bang for its energy buck.

Choosing among energy alternatives

Fossil fuel industry participants and supporters continue to actively oppose government policy initiatives that would support rapid development and deployment of clean, renewable energy. They fight to drastically reduce liabilities imposed on them for the environmental pollution and damage to critical ecosystems, human health and well-being they have caused. They generously fund dubious research, public relations and media campaigns that strive to refute scientific findings contrary to their narrow self-interests.


Fossil fuel industry participants and supporters assert there are no real, economically viable alternatives to coal, oil and natural gas, whether for electricity generation, heating and cooling, or transportation. Actual renewable energy industry market performance and results demonstrate otherwise.

Offering more in the way of contradictory evidence, the Union of Concerned Scientists' (UCS) Climate & Energy Program senior analyst Mike Jacobs recently made a quick comparison of recent studies which show that making the investment needed to achieve 80 percent renewable electricity supply would not only be much cheaper than making the natural gas pipeline investments the industry says the U.S. requires, it would result in much greater new power generation capacity and at the same time drastically reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Fracturing of massive shale deposits (“fracking”) to obtain natural gas and oil has changed the supply-demand balance for these fossil fuels and the energy and geopolitical outlook in the U.S. and beyond. Fracking comes with a host of negative consequences, including intensive use of water resources, water and land pollution, and heightened carbon emissions, however.

Pioneering climate scientist-turned-political activist James Hansen has stated that building the Keystone XL pipeline would be “game over” for any chance society has of avoiding potentially catastrophic climate change.

The worst effects of climate change can still be avoided, and there are viable, much better ways to power development, economies and societies, proponents of making a rapid transition off of fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy resources contend. Life, lifestyles and livelihoods would not look the same as they do today, but they would likely be healthier, more satisfying, and definitely more sustainable and environmentally conscious.

Energy transmission: Solar and wind vs. shale gas

Zooming in on spending to build natural gas pipelines versus building renewable electricity transmission infrastructure, UCS' Jacobs points out that, according to several studies, adding greater amounts of wind and solar power transmission capacity to the U.S. grid would be cheaper than building natural gas pipelines. To that should be added the substantial, and growing, avoided ecological and environmental health and safety damage and costs that come along with not fracking and not distributing shale gas and oil via pipelines or other means.


In an April 1 blog post, Jacobs highlights that two natural gas industry groups, America's Natural Gas Alliance and the INGAA Foundation, on March 18 reported the industry foresees the need for some $641 billion (in real 2012 dollars) in pipeline investments in the U.S. and Canada over the next 20 years -- about $14 billion per year.

In comparison to the $14 billion per year the natural gas industry projects will be needed in U.S. and Canadian pipeline investments by 2020, Jacobs points out that the U.S. Dept. of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) projects the renewable electricity transmission investment required to achieve 80 percent renewable energy in the U.S. by that same year would range between $6.4 billion to $8.4 billion per year, some $5.6 billion to $7.6 billion a year less.

In its “Renewable Electricity Futures Study” (RE Futures), NREL, “explores the implications and challenges of very high renewable electricity generation levels—from 30 percent up to 90 percent, focusing on 80 percent, of all U.S. electricity generation—in 2050.” Along with this would come an 80 percent reduction in national greenhouse gas emissions.

Continuing, Jacobs references three more studies that show the costs of adding more wind and solar electricity transmission capacity would be cheaper than building pipelines for the distribution of shale-fracked natural gas:

  • PJM Interconnection-Eastern Interconnection Planning Collaborative (EIPC) study of renewable energy transmission costs across the entire Eastern region (39 states, 70 percent of U.S. population): $100 billion in transmission costs; 80 percent electricity sector CO2 reductions by 2050;

  • Grid manager PJM Interconnection's study (13 states, 61 million people) by GE Energy Consulting estimates transmission costs to achieve 30 percent renewables by 2026 would total $13.7 billion and reduce CO2 emissions up to 40 percent;

  • Edison Electric Institute (EEI) projects transmission costs over 10 years of $60.6 billion; $46.1 billion to support distribution of electricity from renewable energy sources.

These and other studies all point the way to a healthier, vital and sustainable U.S. economy and society that's well within reach, one centered on rapid deployment of a diversified mix of distributed and utility-scale renewable energy resources. Equally, if not more, convincing are the actual performance, results and triple-bottom-line benefits vital, fast-growing U.S. renewable energy, energy efficiency, and clean technology sectors are already showing.


Image credit: 4 Rivers Surveying

Graph 1: Earth Policy Institute

Andrew Burger headshotAndrew Burger

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

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