Last November, I participated in a summit in Salt Lake City entitled Mountain West Renewables. The conference was attended by both developers and policymakers. One recurring theme was the critical need for additional transmission lines and capacity.  

Domestic energy production of all forms — and especially renewable energy — is a major economic opportunity for rural Utah especially. But to fully realize this opportunity, rural communities need the ability to move the energy they produce to the population centers inside and outside our state where most of that energy will be consumed.

The state’s $23 billion agricultural sector relies heavily on roads, highways and interstates to transport cattle, sheep, wheat and alfalfa across Utah and all across the country. But those roads didn’t get built on their own.  

In the early 20th century, farmers played a pivotal role in the “good roads” movement, which lobbied for the creation of today’s modern road network. More recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has noted that “well-maintained roads are indispensable to support the transport and economic competitiveness of agricultural goods.” 

In the 21st century, the new challenge is building power lines, which will allow rural communities to sell electricity from solar arrays and other energy sources to consumers in Salt Lake City and other major urban centers across the western United States.

In short, our leaders need to start thinking of transmission lines as roads for electricity

Thankfully, construction has already started. PacifiCorp’s Gateway lines and the TransWest Express Transmission project, originating in southwestern Wyoming, will help, but much more is needed.

The White House announced last week a $1.25 billion initiative for lines from Arizona to New Mexico, and another from Nevada to Utah will soon get underway. This is good news. 

In 2019, the Utah Legislature commissioned a study on the need for additional transmission as the state’s population explodes. The initial key finding was that while Utah has excellent electric generation potential and development activity, future generation buildouts will increase congestion on the transmission grid. The study suggested that Utah may need to accommodate between 5.5 and 9 GW of new generation capacity by 2040 that would double the amount of generation capacity online in the state at present. This buildout could lead to a $3.6 billion increase in state domestic product by 2040. 

These proposed projects include new power lines to support the growth of renewable energy in Utah.

How the end of hog farming can kill a way of life in rural Utah

According to an economic impact study on the impact of renewable energy in Utah commissioned by The Western Way in 2022, the total direct and indirect benefits of annual renewable energy operations in Utah will be an estimated $154.4 million in total output ($87.8 million direct output plus $66.6 million indirect and induced output) produced by 568 employees (147 direct employees plus 421 indirect employees) earning a total of about $32.1 million ($13.2 million direct earnings plus $18.9 million indirect earnings).

The permitting process for approving transmission line projects has been famously slow — TransWest Express being the most egregious example that required 15 years and billions of dollars from inception to groundbreaking earlier this year. 

Utah as a whole, and especially its rural communities, can’t afford anything close to those kinds of delays. 

View Comments

Just like the network of roads, transmission lines are indispensable for the interconnected power grid that underpins our economy and way of life — even if they don’t directly serve our homes or businesses. They also forge economic links between electricity-producing rural areas and electricity-consuming urban areas.

Federal, state and local officials need to find ways to streamline the permitting process for new transmission lines and address unwarranted opposition to these projects. Electricity is becoming a vital commodity for rural America, and transmission lines are the roads that connect producers to consumers.

Just as better roads transformed agriculture in the past, better electricity transportation infrastructure can revitalize rural America today. Let’s pave the way for a brighter energy future and make these projects exist in the real world and not just on paper.

Steve Handy, a former Utah legislator, is the Utah director for The Western Way, conservative stewards of the Western environment. 

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.