Rural Missouri Magazine

What about transmission?
High-voltage investment needed
to keep the grid reliable

by Jim McCarty

Editor’s note: Across the state, electric rates are on the rise. This is the seventh in a series explaining why this is taking place and what you can do to help manage your energy bill.

• August 2007 — "Great growth means rising rates."
• September 2007 — "The high costs of cleaner air."
• October 2007 — "The need for more baseload."
• November 2007 — "When time is money."
• December 2007 — "Unconventional kilowatts."
• January 2008 — "Spend now, save later."
• February 2008 — "What about transmission?"
• March 2008 — "The high price of fuel"
• April 2008 — "Negawatts"
• May 2008 — "The glass half full"

Across Missouri, road crews are upgrading the state’s highways to carry more traffic. The same thing is happening with a different kind of highway, the one that carries high-voltage electricity from power plants to the distribution cooperatives.

Like our roadways, the electric transmission grid is seeing much heavier traffic. Forecasts by Associated Electric Cooperative, which generates the power for electric cooperatives in Missouri and parts of Iowa and Oklahoma, show electric cooperative members will use 2.3 percent more electricity every year for at least the next 10 years.

At this pace, more generation will be needed to meet members’ needs. But generating more power does no one any good unless it can be moved to where it is needed.

As new sources of power come online, so too must new transmission lines. During the next 10 years, $350 million will be spent on transmission upgrades by Associated and the six transmission cooperatives that together own Associated.

Such improvements are part of the reason the price you pay for electricity is on the rise. Upgrades to the transmission network, while expensive, are vital to reliable power supply.

The biggest majority of this investment is related to two projects, one in southeast Missouri and one extending from southwest Missouri to northeast Oklahoma, as well as transmission to support a new generating unit.

Other projects included building new substations and interconnections for three wind farms located in northwest Missouri. Having transmission lines in these areas made the wind projects feasible.

Most cooperative members know a lot about the distribution cooperative that serves their homes or businesses. But most don’t realize there is another cooperative that stands behind their local system.

In Missouri, six regional transmission cooperatives owned by the distribution cooperatives maintain high-voltage transmission lines. (Citizens Electric based in Ste. Genevieve is unique in that it handles its own transmission and buys power generated by a cooperative based in Indiana.)

When first organized, these transmission co-ops also handled generation for the member cooperatives. They built power plants and tied their high-voltage lines into the federal hydropower projects. The result was a transmission network that is the envy of the rest of the nation.

“In terms of Missouri, you can’t really have a discussion about electric transmission without including the electric co-ops,” says Jeff Davis, chairman of the Missouri Public Service Commission. “From Iowa to Arkansas, from Oklahoma and Kansas to Illinois, the electric co-ops have the most robust transmission system. It is the backbone of our state’s transmission.”

While Missourians have enjoyed a plentiful supply of low-cost electricity, other states, California in particular, have made headlines because of high rates and shortages of power.

“It’s the growth issue,” Douglas Aeilts, general manager of Northeast Missouri Electric Power Cooperative, says of the California situation. “They had an adequate system at one time. But over the years, they built power plants but weren’t building transmission to move it from the power plants to where the loads are. Now there are restrictions on where they can build lines. It’s just a nightmare out there. We aren’t anywhere near that situation here in the Midwest.”

Electricity flows from the Thomas Hill Energy Center over these high-voltage transmission lines. While Missouri’s electric cooperative transmission grid is the envy of the nation, major investments are needed to ensure it stays that way.

Making sure that situation never happens here is one goal of the multi-million-dollar investment being undertaken by the state’s electric cooperatives. And it’s necessary for one simple fact: The electric transmission grid is being used for a purpose it was never designed for.

“A lot of our transmission lines were designed to carry the electricity from the power plant to the customer being served,” says Davis. “Now we have the prospect of people trying to wheel power from Texas to Maine. That’s a contingency that wasn’t planned for originally. To build that kind of robust transmission system is going to cost billions of dollars.”

Not only is the transmission network being asked to do things it wasn’t designed for, tremendous growth is stressing its use for the things it was designed for.

“The transmission system is an aging, aging system,” says KAMO Power Manager Chris Cariker, whose system serves co-ops in Missouri and Oklahoma. “The bulk of it is 30 years old or older. So we not only ask it to do things it wasn’t designed for, we continue to stress it under the traditional methodology.”

KAMO Power, for example, serves southwest Missouri where tremendous growth is taking place around Springfield, Branson and Joplin. To keep the power flowing, transmission co-ops like KAMO have found creative ways to push more energy across the lines.

“We keep doing things like raising pole heights so we can stretch the wires farther,” Cariker says. “We can get higher clearances so that we can put more load on the conductor. You can just do that for so long before you have to have more transmission or improve what has served us so well for 30, 40 or 50 years.”

So $55 to $60 million is slated to build new transmission lines into the KAMO service area.

The PSC’s Davis sees more transmission stress being driven by states wanting renewable sources of energy. Minnesota, for example, recently passed a law requiring that 25 percent of its energy come from renewables.

“They don’t have the wind capacity in Minnesota to do that. So they need to get wind power from other states to meet that demand. And they are going to have to build new transmission lines from those wind farms out West.”

The problem with that scenario, Davis says, is that no one wants a transmission line in their backyard. And that is another issue that is increasing costs for transmission cooperatives.

The cheapest way to build power lines is to follow the shortest distance between two points. But straight lines are becoming increasingly hard to get. Every zigzag adds cost to a project. Despite the challenges, Missouri’s electric cooperatives are truly blessed by their wonderful transmission system. There are 9,217 miles of transmission lines and related substations on the network, and 152 interconnections with other utilities. This ensures reliability and affordable rates because power can be moved to where it is needed the most.

But lessons learned the hard way by other states show Missouri can not take its transmission network for granted.

“We do better here in terms of reliability, and we do have it better in terms of price,” Davis says. “But if we are going to maintain those advantages, we’ve got to be planning for the future. Ten years down the road in the utility industry is the next 5 minutes in terms of getting plants and transmission lines built. There is a lot that goes into making sure consumers have the electricity they want when they want it.”

Rural Missouri | May 2019 Issue

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