At $93 billion, the cost of new transmission is seen by some as small compared to the costs of installing and connecting wind capacity to the grid.
Despite battle lines forming every time there is a plan to install a transmission line, a report from NREL says building long-haul transmission lines is essential to bring wind energy to the eastern United States.
By Sharryn Dotson, Online Editor
A report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and conducted by EnerNex Corp. said states along the Eastern Interconnection could switch 20 percent of their power generation from fossil fuels to wind power by 2030, but only with additional investments in transmission capacity, specifically from the Midwest where wind power is readily available. The Eastern Interconnection covers an area from Halifax, Nova Scotia to New Orleans; and from Miami to Fargo, N.D.
The report, the “Eastern Wind Integration and Transmission Study (EWITS),” said that even with the cost of transmission being close to $93 billion in 2009 dollars for 22,697 miles of new lines, the price tag is small compared to the overall costs of installing and connecting wind capacity to the national grid.
FERC’s hands are tied
During testimony before a House subcommittee on energy and environment in June 2009, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Chairman Jon Wellinghoff said the commission recognizes the importance of building more transmission lines at a time when President Barack Obama is calling for cuts in greenhouse gases.
“Transmission is critical to meeting the goal of reducing reliance on carbon-emitting sources of electric energy and bringing new sources of renewable energy to market,” Wellinghoff said.
Daniel Brooks, program manager with the Bulk System Integration Program at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) said a lack of transmission lines would limit the amount of wind that can be installed.
“We’re already seeing instances where wind is being curtailed because of transmission capacity,” Brooks said. “Wind developers will concentrate projects around areas with the best wind resource but it may be far from transmission.”
One example Brooks gave is in west Texas, specifically within the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, region.
“There’s a significant portion of the 9,500 MW of wind that ERCOT has built up in the area,” Brooks said. “There’s a lot of activity to develop more transmission, but they regularly experience curtailment because of a lack of transmission.”
One such case is the wind farm that businessman T. Boone Pickens was planning to build in the Texas panhandle as part of his “Pickens Plan” to wean the country off of foreign oil. The 1,000 MW, 667-turbine wind farm was postponed because Pickens said he could not get the project connected to transmission lines. Instead, he distributed most of the wind turbines to other projects around the U.S.
One problem, according to Wellinghoff, is that FERC is not able to override any state agency’s rejection to site transmission lines. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit refused to review a February 2009 ruling that FERC could not overrule a state’s rejection to a siting permit application.
The original ruling consolidated four court cases: Piedmont Environmental Council v. FERC, Public Service Commission of New York v FERC, Minnesota Public Service Commission v FERC and Communities Against Regional Interconnect v FERC. The complaints contended that a state’s denial of a siting permit application could still be overruled within a year under a FERC rule, even though authority to site transmission facilities has traditionally been left to the states.
“Without new siting authority, the commission’s ability to address these challenges is limited,” Wellinghoff said. “For this reason, I recommend that Congress enact legislation that will enable transmission developers to invoke federal authority in appropriate circumstances to site the transmission facilities necessary to interconnect renewable power to the electric transmission grid and move that power to customers.”
Brooks said EPRI is researching a method that could use previously sited lines and increase the transmission capacity of these lines by 5 to 10 percent over their nameplate rating. It’s called Dynamic Thermal Ratings (DTR), and it involves using ambient cooling on the lines so they can dissipate the heat better than under standard conditions.
“The problem with it is that transmission lines are typically long, and it will have to be carried hundreds of miles,” Brooks said.
DTR also will not bring a big enough increase in the amount of generated electricity that can be transmitted. “DTR will not get you from 2 percent wind energy to 20 percent wind energy, “ Brooks said.
The increase will not be enough, however, to cover the expected amount needed for transmission to cover the Eastern Interconnection.
“It’s not the capacity to deliver average wind from the Southwest and the Great Plains. You have to build redundancy into the plans,” Brooks said. “It has to provide for its own contingencies in order to not overload its capacity.”
Michael Goggins, manager of transmission policy with the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), said no matter what reports such as the NREL study say, the country is in need of new transmission lines.
“The United States grid is old and obsolete and it doesn’t do a good job of getting power where it needs to go,” Goggins said. “Even if we build up advanced coal plants, nuclear or renewables, it will all need transmission.”
The Three P’s
Garry Brown, chairman of the New York Public Service Commission, said siting is one of the issues companies and commissions have to overcome because one size doesn’t fit all.
“There are vast amounts of open land (in the West) which allow you to site transmission without affecting localities,” Brown said. “In the East, you have to worry about getting them sited in populated areas and transmission lines tend to be unpopular.”
A Feb. 26 article in The New York Times touched on the problem. Several utilities in the Northwest, California and the Southeast said they were not willing to share in the costs for installing new transmission lines to carry wind and solar power to markets around the United States.
“It’s like if North Dakota is trying to sell electricity to Chicago, that means Minnesota and Wisconsin get to enjoy the lines and don’t get any of the benefits,” Brown said.
AWEA’s Goggins agrees. “States are looking at how it benefits them and not at the bigger picture,” he said. “Costs should be assigned across interconnections and even down to consumers, since they are the ones who would be getting more reliable power and lower costs.”
Goggins said one voice has not been heard much in the debate: The consumer. A related second issue is who will end up paying for the lines? “Others say it should be like the interstate highway system so it should be socialized,” Brown said. “But the complaints are ‘Why should they pay?’”
Goggins said a third problem also exists: Planning.
“Right now, people are doing a lot of short-term planning, like installations for the next 5 or 10 years,” Goggins said. “However, people will have to start doing longer-term planning and making plans for the next several dozen years.”
Goggins said the wind industry is ready to reach any renewable standard that is set.
“The industry is ready for a scale-up to levels we’re seeing in the NREL report,” Goggins said. “We can figure out ways to scale up wind plants and deal with any operational issues.”
Goggins said one country is a prime example of how an increase in wind installations can be achieved.
“Take a look at Europe where they have more than 10 percent wind penetration,” Goggins said. “I think the industry is more than ready.”
Even though Goggins feels the wind industry is ready to reach the NREL goal, Brown said having a national standard in place would be helpful.
“States are reluctant to build it without a national standard,” Brown said. “It’s like being asked to build Interstate 84 without seeing a map of where it’s going.”
However, Brown said it could still be done.
“I think states can work it out in most cases,” Brown said. “Siting is happening all the time for different projects. States have an important role in this.”
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