The Helicopter and the High-Voltage Transmission Line Tower

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A new video shows a specialized Skycrane helicopter lifting a transmission-line tower into place near Roosevelt, Washington. Released by the Department of Energy on its new blog, the work is Big Engineering fun at its best.

But it also shows how difficult it is to lay new miles of transmission. This particular line, the McNary-John Day, will allow hundreds of megawatts of wind power to get to the rest of the state. To lay even thirty miles of line takes months of work and substantial amounts of money. And to really tap the nation's wind resources, it's going to take a lot more than a few miles here of new high-voltage transmission lines here and there.

"[A]nalysis on transmission found that the cost per mile for transmission typically falls between $1.5 to $2.0 million per mile--lines that run underwater or underground can cost significantly more," a Senate Democratic Policy Committee report found. "To simply keep up with demand between 2010 and 2030, nationwide transmission investment will need to reach $300 billion. To provide 20 percent of our nation's electricity from wind, it is estimated that $60 billion in transmission will be needed between now and 2030."

That's exactly the kind of infrastructure investment that private companies are not likely to make and that our government hadn't in recent decades. Investment in transmission infrastructure bottomed in 1998 at about $3 billion a year.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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