Cramped power grid foils renewable plans
Union Tribune (2008-08-28) Matthew Wald
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Infrastructure issues nationwide take wind out of clean energy's sails
By Matthew L. Wald
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE
August 28, 2008
When the builders of the Maple Ridge Wind Farm spent $320 million to put nearly 200 wind turbines in upstate New York, the idea was to get paid for producing electricity. But at times, regional electric lines have been so congested that Maple Ridge has been forced to shut down even with a brisk wind blowing.
MIKE GROLL / Associated Press
Donald Dickinson dried off after a swim in Lowville, N.Y., the site of the Maple Ridge Wind Farm. At times, regional electric lines have been so congested that the farm has been forced to shut down.
That is a symptom of a broad national problem. Expansive dreams about renewable energy, like Al Gore's hope of replacing all fossil fuels in a decade, are bumping up against the reality of a power grid that cannot handle the new demands.
The dirty secret of clean energy is that although generating it is getting easier, moving it to market is not.
The grid today, according to experts, is a system conceived 100 years ago to let utilities prop each other up, reducing blackouts and sharing power in small regions. It resembles a network of streets, avenues and country roads.
“We need an interstate transmission superhighway system,” said Suedeen Kelly, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
While the United States today gets barely 1 percent of its electricity from wind turbines, many experts are starting to think that figure could hit 20 percent.
Achieving that would require moving large amounts of power over long distances, from the windy, lightly populated plains in the middle of the country to the coasts where many people live. Builders are also contemplating immense solar-power stations in the nation's deserts that would pose the same transmission problems.
The grid's limitations are putting a damper on such projects already. Gabriel Alonso, chief development officer of Horizon Wind Energy, the company that operates Maple Ridge, said that in parts of Wyoming, a turbine could make 50 percent more electricity than the identical model built in New York or Texas.
“The windiest sites have not been built, because there is no way to move that electricity from there to the load centers,” Alonso said.
The basic problem is that many transmission lines, and the connections between them, are simply too small for the amount of power companies would like to squeeze through them. The difficulty is most acute for long-distance transmission, but it shows up at times even over distances of a few hundred miles.
Transmission lines carrying power away from the Maple Ridge farm, near Lowville, N.Y., have sometimes become so congested that the company's only choice is to shut down – or pay fees for the privilege of continuing to pump power into the lines.
In Texas, T. Boone Pickens, the oilman building the world's largest wind farm, plans to tackle the grid problem by using a right of way he is developing for water pipelines for a 250-mile transmission line from the Panhandle to the Dallas market. He has testified in Congress that Texas policy is especially favorable for such a project and that other wind developers cannot be expected to match his efforts.
The power grid is balkanized, with about 200,000 miles of power lines divided between 500 owners. Big transmission upgrades often involve multiple companies, many state governments and numerous permits. Every addition to the grid provokes fights with property owners.
These barriers mean that electrical generation is growing four times faster than transmission, according to federal figures.
Under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is authorized to override local and state opposition to new transmission lines within designated corridors if the agency deems the lines necessary to eliminate power-grid bottlenecks.
Creation of the corridors marked a major shift away from traditional policy that gave states the final say on the construction of power lines. The high-voltage lines that typically hang high overhead from large towers often face strong community and environmental opposition.
The Department of Energy said this year that it was moving ahead with plans to create two “National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors” – one in the Middle Atlantic States and the other covering 10 counties in Southern California and western Arizona.
The federal agency rejected protests raised by California regulators who argued the 65,000-square-mile area covers too much space, isn't needed and usurps the state's authority to oversee the electricity grid within its own border.
Energy Department leaders say that, however understandable the local concerns, they are getting in the way. “Modernizing the electric infrastructure is an urgent national problem, and one we all share,” Kevin Kolevar, assistant secretary for electricity delivery and energy reliability, said in a speech last year.
Unlike answers to many of the nation's energy problems, improvements to the grid would require no new technology. An Energy Department plan to source 20 percent of the nation's electricity from wind calls for a high-voltage backbone spanning the country that would be similar to 2,100 miles of lines already operated by a company called American Electric Power.
The cost would be high, $60 billion or more, but in theory could be spread across many years and tens of millions of electrical customers. However, in most states, rules used by public service commissions to evaluate transmission investments discourage multistate projects of this sort. In some states with low electric rates, elected officials fear that new lines will simply export their cheap power and drive rates up.
Without a clear way of recovering the costs and earning a profit, and with little leadership on the issue from the federal government, no company or organization has offered to fight the political battles necessary to get such a transmission backbone built.
A handful of states that have set aggressive goals for renewable energy, such as California, are being forced to deal with the issue, because the goals cannot be met without additional power lines.
It's an argument being made by San Diego Gas & Electric in its proposal to build the Sunrise Powerlink, a 150-mile, high-voltage transmission line from the Imperial Valley. The utility contends that the line is needed to improve the reliability of San Diego's power grid and to connect to solar power plants.
Staff writer Bruce V. Bigelow contributed to this report.