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2024 Earth Month Lecture: "Getting Smarter About A Smart Transmission Grid for the Future"

Event Type
Institute for Sustainability, Energy, & Environment (iSEE) and the College of Law
College of Law's Max L. Rowe Auditorium (504 E. Pennsylvania Ave., Champaign)
Apr 18, 2024   4:00 pm  
Originating Calendar
iSEE Sustainability Calendar

The 2024 Earth Month Lecture is hosted and sponsored by iSEE and the College of Law. Join us for this talk by Howard A. Learner, President and Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, Chicago.

Title: "Getting Smarter About A Smart Transmission Grid for the Future"

Abstract: The electricity system is rapidly transforming to a more decentralized and distributed system due to innovative technological advances just as the telecommunications rapidly transformed from landlines to wireless systems, thereby fundamentally changing the ways that we live and we work. The overcharged rhetoric and often profit-motivated pounding on the table to spend trillions of public dollars to build a new interstate transmission “highway” system that will run through rural small towns and EJ communities, scenic landscapes and vital natural resources is an excessively expensive approach that risks being outdated soon after it’s built just as the huge investment in building-out new telephone wires and poles to serve more business and household modem lines was rendered largely obsolete by the shift to wireless services.

Thus far, the political, regulatory and public debate on a huge interstate high-voltage transmission line build-out is sharply divided between two opposite poles of advocacy: (1) Profit-seeking developers and their allies clamoring to build more high-voltage transmission towers and line anywhere and everywhere at any cost to be charged to ratepayers and taxpayers no matter how high by invoking the mantra “climate change” to justify everything; and (2) NIMBY opposition to transmission lines and solar and wind development everywhere no matter the need for reliability and the vital importance of reducing carbon pollution that is threatening our planet.

There is a balanced, vast middle-ground space for better policies and regulatory actions that can both avoid excessive and unnecessary overbuilding of huge high-voltage transmission lines that no one really wants in their own neighborhood, and provide a better and cleaner electricity system that is reliable.

That more balanced middle-ground approach involves assessing four factors for a proposed new transmission line: (1) what does it carry — fossil fuel or renewable energy?; (2) what does it cost? (3) where does it go – what vital natural resources, protected public lands such as National Wildlife Refuges and community values are threatened or harmed?; and (4) what are the reasonable alternatives?

That approach also involves better using and improving capacity of the existing transmission lines through advanced grid-enhancing technologies (GETS) that are often highly cost-effective by comparison and can be implemented more quickly with less environmental and community harms. 

In short, modernize, upgrade and better utilize the existing transmission grid, develop more distributed clean energy resources, and build some but not as much completely new transmission lines — a smarter and less rancorous strategy to achieve a smart transmission grid for our future. (And, let’s realize that standing in the middle ground often means being shot at by both sides of this polarized debate!)

Speaker Bio: Learner is an experienced attorney who serves as ELPC’s President and Executive Director. He is responsible for ELPC’s overall strategic leadership, policy direction, and financial platform. Mr. Learner served as the General Counsel for Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, specializing in environmental, energy, economic development, civil rights litigation, and policy development. He serves as Vice-Chair of the (Cook County) Forest Preserve Foundation. He was the founding Chair of the Illinois Citizens Utility Board and founding Chair of the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance. He served on the Executive Committee and Board of the Environmental Law Institute and as the Vice-Chair of the U.S. EPA’s National Advisory Council on Environmental Policy and Technologies. Mr. Learner is an Adjunct Professor at Northwestern University Law School and the University of Michigan Law School, teaching advanced seminars in energy law and climate change policy. 

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