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How a U.S. macrogrid might benefit Iowa’s energy industries


The United States is significantly behind other countries in investing in a national energy “macrogrid” — and states like Iowa could stand to benefit economically from a push to increase energy transmission capacity, Iowa State University researchers say in a new report. 

In the report, sponsored by Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, authors James McCalley and Qian Zhang examined current investment worldwide in interregional energy transmission grids, called macrogrids. 

North America lags behind four of the seven global regions in investment of interregional lines: Since 2014, North America has added 7 gigawatts of transmission capacity in its transmission grids, compared with 12 gigawatts in India, 22 gigawatts in South America, 44 gigawatts in Europe and 260 gigawatts in China. 

“We have transmission in the U.S. that covers the entire country, but the level of interregional transmission is not very large. The macrogrid would address that,” said McCalley, Anson Marston Distinguished Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at ISU. 

McCalley and Zhang’s report describes developing a potential macrogrid network for the U.S. that would allow shared transmission capacity, reducing the amount of infrastructure individual regions would need to build and ultimately lowering retail electricity prices in parts of the country. 

Building and planning for such a network will require interstate cooperation, said Zhang, senior engineer with the Electric Power Research Institute. 

“Coordination is definitely the key here in building, but also paying attention to operation once the grid is built,” Zhang said. 

The U.S. energy grid system is made up of three separate grids: East, West, and ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas). Those grids are designed and operated very similarly, McCalley said, with the limited ability to transmit power between the three grids. 

Internationally, decarbonization efforts in China and Europe have propelled macrogrid investment as the regions attempt to meet ambitious climate change plans, Zhang said. 

A macrogrid would greatly expand the transmission capacity across the U.S. regions as more renewable energy sources are developed — not only assisting the country’s decarbonization effects, but also offering new economic gains in states like Iowa, which already have developing solar and wind energy industries. Iowa is currently generating about 10 gigawatts of wind energy, which is near what the state’s peak load will be, McCalley said. 

Capacity matters to states attempting to expand those industries. Renewable energy facilities can generate local tax revenue and bring job creation to communities, but when transmission capacity is met on the grid, the energy produced will only have a limited regional market. 

“If you can’t move that energy, then you build it in Iowa up until the point where your transmission capacity is used, and then you stop. But we think that people all over the country would benefit from Iowa’s wind resource, and Oklahoma’s, and Nebraska’s — all throughout this Midwestern, very rich wind belt,” he said. “You could build more if you could move it. And if you build more, you would also benefit from all the jobs associated with building more, and you would also benefit with all the revenue streams from producing that energy.”  

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