Outdated Transmission System Stalls Wind Power
Wind has become the nation's most viable renewable energy option, even as state and federal policymakers demand that a larger percentage of energy come from wind, the sun and other clean-energy sources.
But as support builds for wind and other renewable options, a major question remains: how to move electricity from the wind-swept prairies where it's generated, to the big cities.
Experts agree that the tens of thousands of miles of wires that move electricity from power plants to private homes and pubic buildings are unreliable. Adding renewable energy to the load would likely be too much for the system to handle.
Already, more than 300,000 megawatts of wind projects are on hold because of insufficient transmission capacity, according to the American Wind Energy Association. That would provide 20 percent of the nation's electricity needs.
"Transmission is really the glass ceiling for renewable energy development right now," said Beth Soholt, director of Wind on the Wires, a coalition of wind energy advocates based in St. Paul, Minn.
Mike Hastings, president of Half Moon Power, which has wind energy projects in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, agreed the existing transmission grid deters wind power and other renewable energy alternatives.
"It is the factor that makes or breaks all wind projects today," Hastings said.
Renewable energy is seen as critical in reducing the carbon dioxide emissions that many scientists say contribute to global warming.
President Barack Obama wants to require that 25 percent of the nation's electricity come from renewable energy sources by 2025. Already, 28 states require some level of commitment to renewable energy, and five have set specific goals for how much power must come from such sources.
Federal energy officials want 20 percent of the nation's energy to come from wind by 2030. That would eliminate 825 million metric tons of carbon emissions a year, create 500,000 new jobs and boost the economy by about $450 billion.
AWEA has called for investing billions to build "green power superhighways" consisting of high-voltage lines to integrate wind and reduce congestion.
But the plan faces two major obstacles. One is deciding where to put the new interstate lines and power stations. The other is deciding who pays for the overhaul. Both concerns involve states' rights issues.
"You need to have the states involved, but if you don't ultimately have some sort of backstop, some federal authority and federal rules, you're going to get a really inconsistent and probably inefficient list of plans," said Nathanael Greene, director of renewable energy policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
That's why some advocates of rebuilding the grid support a Senate bill that would give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission final say over where new lines should be built and how to split the cost.
One option would mimic the highway trust fund, in which federal gasoline taxes are divvied out to the states to pay for repairing and building new roads and bridges.
"The system was designed for everybody's common benefit," said Joseph Welch, CEO of ITC Holdings, an independent transmission company. "All of us have paid, and all of us have benefited. If we never had developed the interstate highway system, we wouldn't have the commerce we have today."
Welch's company has started a $10 billion-$12 billion effort to build 3,000 miles of new high-voltage transmission lines to serve parts of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. The network would help move 12,000 megawatts of wind power.
Obama has designated $11 billion in economic recovery funds for a "bigger, better and smarter grid that will move renewable energy from the rural places it is produced to the cities where it is mostly used."
Even without new high-power transmission lines, digitizing the grid would go a long way toward increasing reliability and efficiency, exerts agree. They recall the 2003 blackout in the Northeast and Canada that caused an estimated $7 billion-$10 billion in economic losses.
"Electricity is about where telecommunications was 30 years ago," said Kurt Yeager, director of the Galvin Electricity Initiative. "It's like operating a highway with only one car a mile, instead of having a stream of cars. With smart technology, we can at least double that capacity."
Meanwhile, wind energy developers like Half Moon Power, must stand in line and wait for a grid connection to open up before their projects can proceed.
Hastings said his company has two projects in Michigan, three in Minnesota and four in Wisconsin that together would generate nearly 1,000 megawatts of wind energy, enough to power at least 200,000 homes.
The company has hired transmission experts, Hastings said, to help identify areas along the grid that would accommodate those projects.
"You have to find those sweet spots on the grid," he said, "and there's a bit of a gold rush going on to get those remaining sweet spots."
Wind power facts
— New wind projects supplying more than 8,300 megawatts of energy — enough to light up more than 2 million American households — made the U.S. the world's top producer of wind energy last year.
— Wind power accounted for 42 percent of new energy generated in the nation in 2008. Total wind energy capacity exceeded 25,000 megawatts, enough to serve 7 million households.
— Denmark, Spain and parts of Germany generate 10 percent to 25 percent of their electricity from wind.
— The wind industry employed 85,000 workers in 2008, an increase of 35,000 at a time when the nation lost hundreds of thousands of jobs overall.
Top 10 states in wind power potential
(in billions of kilowatt-hours per year)
North Dakota — 1,210 billion kWh
Texas — 1,190
Kansas — 1,070
South Dakota — 1,030
Montana — 1,020
Nebraska — 868
Wyoming — 747
Oklahoma — 725
Minnesota — 657
Iowa — 551
Source: American Wind Energy Association