Transmission: The Backbone of our Renewable Energy Revolution

By Jonathan Marmillo

From the ground, you can see them for miles. From high above, they look like a row of stitches. At a single upstate New York wind farm, there are dozens of wind turbines spanning thousands of acres. Atop a 500-foot tower, massive 144-foot blades turn, fitted on a huge hub turning a generator in a box the size of a city bus, weighing 60 tons. On a good day, they each produce enough electricity to power 3000 average homes.

Yet few Americans ever get a glimpse of these massive engineering marvels. Wind turbines are typically located far from population centers—in this case, 300 miles from New York City, hungry for power for its 8.3 million citizens and their millions of lights, TVs, air conditioners, appliances, industrial machines, phones, PCs, and electronic devices. There’s only one way to get all this wind energy into the five boroughs: high-voltage transmission lines that stretch across the landscape, held aloft by 150-ft towers. There are more than 200,000 miles of these lines across the country. Not only is this a remarkable planning achievement, it also happens to be the “backbone” of the grid, the largest machine on earth. Unfortunately, this base of our infrastructure is showing its age: many parts of it are 50 years old or more.