John Phipps: Power Line Problem is Broader Infrastructure Issue

September 18, 2017 11:00 AM

Last month, the Missouri Public Service Commission denied permission for the construction of a major new power transmission line across the state. Although most of the commissioners approved of the project a recent court ruling declared the builders must get permission county by county as well, which it did not have. What happens next is unclear.

Power line fights have always been hyper-local. Most of us don’t care if there is one built next door to us as long as it’s not in our field. Giving final say to local government is usually the kiss of death to such projects. In fact, the long debated Keystone XL pipeline is hung up with similar court cases. There is a good chance that delay has been helpful, since the fracking boom has largely eliminated the demand for Canadian tar sands oil, greatly reducing the need for the pipeline.

Regardless of your position on such public projects and how government should regulate them, these lengthy disputes suggest one reason why our much-lamented infrastructure is so slow and expensive to improve. It also is a wake-up call to the idea that places that have a lot of wind and solar energy, but little demand, like Kansas or Oklahoma can realize the full profit potential of wind and solar farms. The power is needed on the coasts, not the Great Plains. And there are a lot of stubborn people between those places.

The same hassles plague roads and airports and other projects – changes to the landscape will impact people who won’t like it. And our legal system gives them considerable power to resist. For our power grid, this stumbling block to progress makes me lean toward a more distributed system. This means solar roofs and batteries in the garage rather than acres of solar panels in the desert or more wind farms on the plains. While less efficient, such small stand-alone installations do not require much cooperation.

Planning our national future then needs to take into account our individual visions of that future are not widely shared, and needed cooperation will be slow in arriving. More and more, it looks like we are all in this alone.

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