Transmission & Distribution
The generation source for the future is only part of North Americas growing energy crisis. There are also significant upgrades and expansions necessary throughout the transmission and distribution system to move the energy from the power plant to the consumer. The power sent from a generation facility is converted at substations and downgraded and dispersed to individual homes along the transmission and distribution lines.
The existing transmission and distribution grid in North America was not built to handle the current capacity. Though new construction in generation facilities has been scarce in recent years, additions and improvements to the transmission and distribution lines have been non-existent. As power demands grow, new transmission and distribution improvements will be paramount to avoid bottlenecks due to the existing constraints.
Regardless of the power generation sources of the future, the North American transmission grid will have to be upgraded and expanded. The investment in North Americas transmission grid has not kept up with generation expansion or current demand. The Consumer Energy Council of American (CECA) estimated new transmission lines would be added at only 1/3 the rate of demand from 2003 to 2013. This coupled with the $0.6 billion annual price tag for corrosion along the transmission grid means North Americas transmission capacity is falling further and further behind the energy demands.
In 2002, the US Department of Energy acknowledged increasing concern with the overextended transmission grid specifically noting the existing system was not designed to meet even the present demand, and that constraints or bottlenecks increase costs to consumers and increase the risk of blackouts.
The blackout in August of 2003 across parts of the Northeast and Canada highlighted how costly the overexerted system and blackouts can be with estimates in the billions of dollars. There is a glaring need for upgrades and additions because as the grid becomes more overloaded, even maintenance of existing structures could lead to costly shutdowns or brownouts.
Once power is generated and transmitted over long distances to substations, it is stepped-down and distributed to residential, commercial, and industrial consumers. When distribution lines were first being built more than 50 years ago, wooden poles were primarily used and placed directly in the soil to bring power to every demand point. At the time, wooden poles were plentiful and inexpensive; however, over time the market has transitioned to using steel poles when new lines are created or old poles are replaced.
There are approximately 185 million utility distribution poles in North America, and 2-4 million are replaced annually. Similar to transmission, distribution lines and poles are often an afterthought in the growing energy crisis. However, as these poles are directly responsible for carrying power to consumers, investments in power distribution is critical for future generations. In the last 20 years, galvanized steel poles have made inroads in the marketplace, because they provide a variety of advantages over wood poles and are less expensive than in-ground placement of cables.