Pumping Up the Grid: Key Step to Green Energy

The U.S. can build all the wind turbines and solar arrays it wants, but until it does something about improving its outmoded electricity grid, renewable energy will never reach its potential. What we need is a new electricity transmission system, with the costs shared by all.

As America gets serious about the twin crises of oil dependency and climate change, many analysts believe that wind power — and eventually solar power — will make the largest carbon-free contributions to a new energy supply. But America’s aging electrical transmission system is renewable energy’s Achilles heel, and unless a broad policy consensus to upgrade our electrical grid is forged soon, the potential of wind and solar power will be vastly diminished.

Three things are needed to solve the challenge of renewable energy transmission: good technical planning, permitting and siting processes that can win public support, and broad agreement on how to pay the high cost of new power lines. Of these issues, the last one — gaining agreement on how transmission costs are spread among players — is currently the most contentious. To solve it, policymakers must come up with a plan to allocate these costs as broadly across the electricity system as possible — utilities, renewable energy generators, and consumers — since ultimately the whole system and all its users will benefit from a 21st century grid.

Today, achieving a national consensus on the importance of a better electrical transmission system is the single most important step toward vast expansion of clean, low-cost sources of energy. With every passing day, we can generate more and more energy from wind and solar power. The challenge now is getting it to the population centers where it is most needed.

Our infrastructure is completely outdated for an economy that will increasingly run on clean electricity.

Wind is the prime renewable energy source in my region of the United States, the Upper Midwest, and last year the U.S. wind market enjoyed massive growth, increasing the country’s total wind power generatingcapacity by nearly half. New wind energy projects accounted for more than 40 percent of all electric generating capacity added last year, as the U.S. surpassed Germany as the world’s wind power leader. A recent federal study demonstrated how wind energy could grow from 1 percent to 20 percent of U.S. electricity generation by 2030. With automakers and policymakers increasingly agreeing that electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids are important to U.S. energy security, greening the electric grid is doubly urgent.

To reach this goal, wind turbines would have to be installed across the nation and offshore. However, in many cases the highest quality wind is distant from the most densely populated parts of the country, so a major investment in a more robust grid is essential.

Our current electricity transmission infrastructure — the power lines that stretch across the landscape, the substations, the power poles and distribution lines in America’s cities — is aging and severely strained. Though not on the brink of collapse, it is critical infrastructure that’s completely outdated for an economy that will increasingly run on clean electricity. Many lines and substations are old and operating at full capacity, unable to accept the energy from even a few dozen new wind turbines. Congestion bottlenecks limit the amount of energy that can flow across the landscape, like a multi-lane highway that narrows to a single lane.

Because wind and solar energy are variable in their output, having a strong interconnected grid system boosts the system’s ability to take on more and more renewables. For example, if it’s super-windy in Kansas, we could send the extra energy to Chicago where the wind is calm. Our current web of transmission lines is just not properly sized — or properly located — to allow vast amounts of energy to do that job.

Most Americans know little or nothing about how we manage electricity transmission, plan for it, and pay for it. Not only are these not popular topics for the public, they’re not an issue for most energy and environmental groups.

Most Americans know little or nothing about how we manage electricity transmission.

Here where I live in Minnesota, the Midwest Independent System Operator (MISO) manages and plans electric transmission in 13 states, from the Dakotas to Indiana. Its job, in part, is to run the electric system fairly andopenly — like the interstate highway system — so anyone can get on and move from here to there, without discrimination against any power supplier. MISO is doing an increasingly aggressive and thorough analysis of the transmission upgrades — including beefier lines, new corridors, and new substations — for multiple wind deployment scenarios, including the vision that sees wind as providing at least 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.

But MISO and similar agencies can only do so much with our outdated grid, which requires an overhaul involving government and the energy sectors at all levels — local, state, and federal.

The first hurdle is to streamline the permitting process. Wind energy farms can be built in a few months, but securing permission to construct high-voltage transmission lines can take five years or longer. This is not so much a technical problem as a social and political one. Face it: Nobody likes new transmission lines in their community or near their property.

Just last month, the Transmission Agency of Northern California (TANC), including the iconic green Sacramento Municipal Utility District and the federal Western Area Power Administration, was forced to pull the plug on a 600-mile transmission project in northern California. I cannot speak to the merits of the line or its need, but there seems to be broad agreement that because the public process was poor, the affected communities essentially killed the project. Transmission proponents often act as if public support is an afterthought, presenting the lines as a fait accompli, and assume the public will simply go along with their assurances that the lines are well sited and critical to the electric system.

Too often the public does not get a real opportunity to clearly understand the purpose of the proposed transmission line, or a meaningful chance to help select the best route. If citizens along the proposed route feel that they are being taken for granted or treated unfairly, they will fight the project rather than shape it. Even a handful of dedicated opponents can delay a necessary transmission line upgrade for years.

The standard argument for opposing new transmission lines is the potential for conservation, rooftop solar, and other community energy solutions. Diversifying our energy sources in these ways is good. But remember that over the next two to three decades we must replace virtually all of America’s existing coal-fired power stations or retrofit them with carbon-sequestration technology (a dubious proposition) if we hope to avoid the most serious consequences of a changing climate. To make this switch without large-scale wind and solar power — and new power lines — will be impossible.

As difficult as siting is, we face an even more urgent problem — fair allocation of the costs of upgrading the grid. In my home state, Minnesota utility Otter Tail Power Company attests that MISO’s current rules for sharing the cost of new transmission to wind farms are unworkable.

We should treat new transmission as a public infrastructure, like natural gas pipelines or transit.

Currently, if a wind developer wants to connect to the electric grid of autility, the wind developer pays half the cost, and the utility pays half. That seems reasonable, but wind energy resources in Otter Tail’s western Minnesota and North and South Dakota service area are so vast that the utility currently has connection requests for wind farms equaling 10 times the utility’s total energy need. To burden Otter Tail Power with these excessive interconnection costs simply doesn’t make sense. Without a fix, Otter Tail threatens to leave the MISO system, opting out of a voluntary wholesale electricity market that is, by all accounts, essential for the economically efficient operation of the U.S. power grid.

Unfortunately, MISO has proposed a remedy that’s worse than the problem. The power generators and transmission owners who have the majority voice in MISO now say that Otter Tail should pay nothing, but the wind developer should pay the whole freight. That proposal is pending at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), and a broad campaign is afoot to inform FERC that it’s a non-starter. In fact, it’s a solution guaranteed to stop wind energy development in its tracks.

What’s needed is what FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff has proposed to Congress: to give his agency the authority to broadly allocate the transmission costs throughout regional operating systems, like MISO. We should treat new transmission as a public infrastructure, like natural gas pipelines, bridges or transit, or high-speed rail. The solution is to spread the cost — which will reach many tens of billions of dollars — equitably across all electricity consumers. Not surprisingly, Wellinghoff’s proposal is generating opposition from some utilities and their political supporters. But the role of renewable energy transmission is too important to our energy future to let politics as usual stand in the way.

Over the past few months, parochial interests have hammered away at national grid reform in the House-approved energy legislation awaiting action in the U.S. Senate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has identified upgrading the grid for renewable electricity as a key priority. Reid, his colleagues, and federal regulators must make it clear that transmission for clean energy is a pressing national priority — for our security, our economy, and our climate goals — that should be an important component of any climate and energy legislation.

Congress should mandate that the regional independent system operators plan the transmission systems we desperately need. We must have laws that require meaningful public participation in routing of new transmission lines; but environmental opposition must not stop transmission that’s crucial to protect the environment and slow global warming. Finally, our policies must spell out a method of sharing the costs of building a 21st century grid.

If the President, Congress, and FERC act together to create a new transmission system, America will inevitably realize its potential for renewable electricity. Otherwise we will stymie development of the clean energy that could be a cornerstone of America’s economic and environmental future.