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Solar Energy Guide

Frequently Asked Questions

Electric Transmission and Transmission Facilities

Electric power transmission is the process by which electricity is transported over long distances to consumers. New electric transmission facilities might be required for some new solar energy power plants.

Electric Transmission

Electric power transmission is the process by which large amounts of electricity produced at power plants, such as industrial-scale solar facilities, is transported over long distances for eventual use by consumers. In North America, electricity is sent from power plants to the North American transmission grid, a vast network of electric power lines and associated facilities in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Due to the large amount of power involved, and the properties of electricity, transmission normally takes place at high voltage (69 kV or above). Electricity is usually shipped to a substation near a populated area. At the substation, the high voltage electricity is converted to lower voltages suitable for consumer use, and then shipped to end users through (relatively) low-voltage electric distribution lines.

For newly constructed solar energy power plants, if no existing suitable transmission facilities were available, new transmission lines and associated facilities would be required. The construction, operation, and decommissioning of high-voltage transmission lines and associated facilities would create a range of environmental impacts. The type and magnitude of the impacts associated with transmission line construction, operation, and decommissioning would vary depending on line type and size, as well as the length of the transmission line, and a variety of other site-specific factors.

The main components of high-voltage electric transmission lines and associated facilities include:

Transmission Towers

Transmission towers are the most visible component of the power transmission system. Their function is to keep the high-voltage conductors (power lines) separated from their surroundings and from each other. A variety of tower designs exist that generally employ an open lattice work or a monopole, but generally they are very tall (a 500 kv tower might be 150 feet tall with crossarms as much as 100 feet wide), metal structures.

Transmission towers
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Conductors (Power lines)

Conductors are the power lines that carry the electricity to and through the grid to consumers. Generally, several conductors are strung on a tower for each electrical circuit. Conductors are constructed primarily of twisted metal strands, but newer conductors may incorporate ceramic fibers in a matrix of aluminum for added strength with lighter weight.


The very high voltages used for electric transmission are converted to lower voltages for consumer use at substations. Substations vary in size and configuration but may cover several acres; they are cleared of vegetation and typically surfaced with gravel. They are normally fenced, and are reached by a permanent access road. In general, substations include a variety of structures, conductors, fencing, lighting, and other features that result in an "industrial" appearance.

Click to enlarge

Get Adobe Flash Player (free)Click the photo below to view interactive panorama.

Substation at a Photovoltaic Facility - Interactive Panorama. Source: Argonne National Laboratory

Rights of Way (ROWs)

The right of way for a transmission corridor includes land set aside for the transmission line and associated facilities, needed to facilitate maintenance, and to avoid risk of fires and other accidents. It provides a safety margin between the high-voltage lines and surrounding structures and vegetation. Some vegetation clearing may be needed for safety and/or access reasons. A ROW generally consists of native vegetation or plants selected for favorable growth patterns (slow growth and low mature heights). However, in some cases, access roads constitute a portion of the ROW and provide more convenient access for repair and inspection vehicles. The width of a ROW varies depending on the voltage rating of the line from 50 ft. to approximately 175 ft. or more for 500 kv lines.

Transmission ROW
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Access Roads

Access routes to transmission line structures for both line construction and maintenance are normally required, and may be paved or gravel. Vegetation clearing and/or recontouring of land may be required for access road construction. Additional temporary roads may also be needed during the construction and decommissioning phases of a transmission line project.

For More Information

More information about electric transmission and detailed descriptions of transmission facility components are available in the following technical report.

PDF The Design, Construction, and Operation of Long-Distance High-Voltage Electricity Transmission Technologies Environmental Science Division, Argonne National Laboratory, Technical Memorandum ANL/EVS/TM/08-4 (1.4 MB)