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Electricity Superhighway

It finally looks like New York, which is perpetually addled by traffic, will be constructing a new expressway.

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The proposed 333-mile line that will run from the Canadian border to New York City will differ significantly from the New York Thruway. It will built and owned by private investors instead of the government. It will be largely invisible to most drivers, since it will be buried under Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. And instead of carrying cars and trucks, it will carry electrons.

It turns out the Champlain Hudson Power Express, which received a permit from the Department of Energy in early October but must still surmount regulatory barriers, is designed to carry electricity. Specifically, it is meant to ferry clean power from hydroelectric plants in Canada to charge iPhones in hipster Brooklyn and keep the lights on in the Empire State Building.

You’ve heard of the interstate highway system and the information superhighway – both vital pieces of infrastructure for the U.S. economy. Today, the biggest and most important construction projects may be a new transportation network: the growing electricity interstate superhighway system.

America’s rise to an economic power was enabled by a series of networks that helped bind the massive country together into a single, integrated market. With each successive layer of networks, the U.S. became more potent. Canals, and then railroads, provided vital transportation networks. The Erie Canal in upstate New York allowed farm products in Michigan and Ohio to reach international markets. Once the railroad system was built, it meant a company could make beer in St. Louise and ship it anywhere in the U.S. in a few days Information-transport systems came next – the telegraph and the telephone, their wires often running alongside or above railroads. In the 20th century, interstate highways provided the distribution networks for big-box retailers like Walmart. And the contributions of the internet to the modern economy are obvious.

When a country spreads over a large and varied land mass, connections can be as important as resources. This is evident in the next infrastructure boom unfolding before our eyes: electricity transmission lines. Until recently, electricity was generally created at big gas and coal-powered power plants that could be located near population centers. But this model is changing – in part because there is less desire to use coal, and in part because land in urban and suburban areas often has a higher value for other uses. But it’s changing mostly because vast new supplies of power are springing up far from cities.

Across the country, huge new resources that always existed – the rushing waters of Canada, the powerful sun of the desert southwest the fiercely blowing winds of the Great Plains, the geothermal power bubbling underneath the surface of the American west –are now being tapped. The U.S. is in the midst of a historic renewables boom. But huge distances separate these resources from the population centers where the power is needed.

And so the private sector – with an occasional assist from government – is starting to build a new set of toll roads to transport the resources.

In Nevada, a 230-mile line, built at a cost of $552 million – with federal loan guarantees backing it – called the One Nevada Transmission Line, is now in service. It connects geothermal plants in the sparsely populated northern part of the state to the burgeoning Las Vegas area.

In Texas, a multi-year project has just been completed that saw companies roll out some 3,500 miles of lines that connect wind farms in the western and northern parts of the states to the population centers of Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. The total cost of the so-called Competitive Renewable Energy Zones: $7 billion. The lines may not seem like much – a punch of poles, wires and equipment. But the impact is huge. Texas, which has more wind power than any other state by a long shot, is now able to use all the wind power it produces; before the transmission lines were built, much of it went to waste. And when the wind really gets blowing, it can provide 30 percent of the state’s electricity.

More are on the way. In the Upper Midwest, ITC Holdings wants to build the Green Power Express, a 3,000-mile network of wires that could funnel up to 12,000 megawatts of wind power from the upper plains – the Dakotas, and Minnesota – into Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois.

Perhaps the most ambitious of the new network builders is Clean Line Energy, a private company that is aiming to build a series of long, high-capacity toll roads for electricity in the heartland. Clean Line wants to construct networks on which it will sell capacity both to utilities (i.e. the buyers of electricity) and wind farm companies (i.e. the producers). And it has given its proposed projects names that echo those of the railroads that helped knit the country together more than a century ago. There’s the Rock Island Express, which would ferry power from Iowa to Illinois. The Grain Belt Express Clean Line would carry up to 3,500 megawatts of wind power over 750 miles from western Kansas and Missouri to Illinois, Indiana. The Centennial West line, which would be about the same size, would sweep west from Oklahoma towards California.

These new lines may not carry the same romance of the old railroads. It won’t be possible for passengers to ride the Grain Belt Express, and the Champlain Hudson Power Express won’t offer scenic views (it’s underground, after all). But their economic impact is likely to be just as potent.