Modest Optimism, Lingering Questions at Transmission Summit

By Wayne Barber

WASHINGTON — Modest optimism about the Trump administration’s infrastructure plans was tempered with questions about leadership at FERC and other federal agencies at a gathering of transmission developers, RTO officials and environmentalists last week.

The first National Electric Transmission Infrastructure Summit, held Feb. 9-10 by Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, also heard concerns over how to pay for grid modernization in a time of anemic load growth. The organization, an initiative of the Energy Future Coalition, has held regional transmission conferences, but this was its first national event.

The coalition was formed in 2002 by former Sen. Tim Wirth, a Colorado Democrat; Republican C. Boyden Gray, who served as White House counsel to President George H.W. Bush; and Democrat John Podesta, a former aide to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama who chaired Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Lack of Load Growth

Glazer | © RTO Insider

“I’d love to have more load growth. It ain’t going to happen,” Craig Glazer, PJM’s vice president for federal government policy, told the gathering.

Weak load growth will make it more complicated to finance upgrades for aging transmission, and the lack of a federal carbon tax or renewable mandate is making it difficult to integrate renewable generation, Glazer said.

Much of the current grid was built during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, with the deployment of coal and nuclear power plants, said ITC Holdings Executive Vice President and COO Jon Jipping. Now that many of those big baseload stations are being retired, much of the new generation — mostly natural gas or renewable energy — is in different locations that require new transmission, Jipping noted.

From the podium and on the sidelines, speakers said that while they like the Trump administration’s pro-growth rhetoric, they are also anxious to see FERC restored to full strength and who will be the key lieutenants to energy secretary nominee Rick Perry.

Speakers also cited concerns over cost allocation, regional planning and the shortcomings of FERC Order 1000.

Wade Smith, senior vice president of grid development for American Electric Power, said his company has made transmission a higher investment priority than generation in recent years as it focuses more on regulated utility operations.

Modernization is needed because much of the AEP grid is 70 years old, and yet it integrates 9,000 MW of wind, Smith said.

While much of the U.S. electric transmission system was built in the mid-20th century, the infrastructure components are inspected every year, said Rudy Wynter, National Grid’s president of FERC-regulated businesses. The grid was built in big chunks and it will largely be rebuilt in large chunks, Wynter said. This includes not only renewable integration but also preparing for more electric vehicles and offshore wind power, he added.

Siting Authority

During one session, SPP CEO Nick Brown was interviewed by former FERC Chairman James Hoecker, now senior counsel for WIRES Group, which represents transmission developers and utilities. Hoecker stressed the importance of adding three commissioners to get FERC back to full strength. With only two commissioners since the Feb. 3 resignation of former Chairman Norman Bay, FERC lacks a quorum. (See FERC OKs Pipelines, Delegation Order Before Losing Quorum.)

Hoecker (left) and Brown | © RTO Insider

Hoecker and Brown discussed FERC’s inability to gain “backstop” siting authority, saying it’s still very difficult to prevent individual states from blocking a project. The Energy Policy Act of 2015 amended the Federal Power Act to give FERC the authority to site electric transmission lines blocked by states, but court rulings have blocked the commission’s attempts to use it, prompting some in Congress to propose additional legislation strengthening FERC’s authority.

Brown said that Order 1000 hasn’t really helped SPP much with large regional projects.

“We need to decide what we want this grid of the future to look like,” Glazer said. For example, should it be a “localized grid” that can harness distributed generation? he asked. “There’s an added complication; it’s not even clear who is in charge,” Glazer said. FERC, state utility commissions and governors all have a say in siting decisions, he said.

If each governor is asked what infrastructure projects they want, the country will end up with a lot of state-based projects, not interstate ones, Clean Line Energy Partners President Mike Skelly said.

Perhaps the new mantra is “we’re going to make transmission great again,” Skelly said. The power to select infrastructure projects should not be taken away from transmission planners and placed in the hands of Congress, he said.

Skelly and others cautioned the Trump administration not to skimp on project reviews or stakeholder input. The key is that all projects must have “timelines” for regulatory approvals to avoid infinite delays, he said.

The executive director of the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Council, Brad Markell, said the labor movement agrees with the need for “hard timelines” to shorten the permit process.

Markell said that labor unions have been in contact with the Trump administration on potential infrastructure efforts.

“From our point of view, more power for the federal government and less power for the states [on electric infrastructure] would be a good thing,” he said.

Others deemed that unlikely. “I think we’re stuck with the system we have,” Glazer said.

Environmentalists Weigh In

Liese Dart, senior energy advisor for The Wilderness Society, said her organization favors prescreening certain public lands for development suitability.

Hitt | © RTO Insider

Mary Anne Hitt, executive director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said that — contrary to what conference participants may have heard — her organization doesn’t oppose all power lines, only those that appear aimed to “prop up fossil fuels.”

The environmental group opposed the abandoned “coal by wire” Potomac-Appalachian Transmission Highline (PATH) project in PJM. On the other hand, it has backed the Plains and Eastern Clean Line Project, designed to move renewable energy from Oklahoma to Tennessee.

Hitt said she was concerned that President Trump’s nominee for EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, opposed Clean Line in 2015 as Oklahoma attorney general.

Hitt also said the Sierra Club has concerns about the Gateway West project, a proposal by PacifiCorp and Idaho Power to build about 1,000 miles of high-voltage transmission through Wyoming and Idaho. She said PacifiCorp has been slower than some Western utilities in reducing its coal use and slower than the Sierra Club would like in expanding its renewable resources.

Grid Security

When it comes to protecting the grid, Brown said much of the discussion seems to be centered on preventing cyber intrusions. Perhaps the discussion should be less about how to keep cyber intruders out than to minimize the damage and restore order once they disrupt the system, the SPP official said, likening the approach to “insurance.”

But he said winning regulatory approval for equipment such as spare transformers may be difficult.

“I believe we are going to have to spend much more money on spare equipment, and that’s going to be tough to sell,” Brown said. “We are unwilling to spend that kind of money for spare equipment because it is not ‘used and useful.’”

SPP Chief Reticent on Mountain West

Brown declined to reveal much about the status of the Mountain West Transmission Group’s discussions about joining SPP.

Mountain West, a partnership of seven transmission-owning entities within the Western Interconnection, revealed the discussions in January. It said if the talks with SPP are not successful, it would likely explore joining another RTO. (See Mountain West to Explore Joining SPP.)

In response to a question about whether Mountain West was attracted by SPP’s cost-allocation system, Brown replied, “You’d have to ask them.”

“We’re excited about it,” Brown said of the talks, before cautioning, “Nothing is signed.”


How new transmission can unlock 10 times more renewables for the Eastern U.S.

This article was originally published on UtilityDive on October 27, 2016.

The Eastern Interconnect can handle 30% renewables within a decade, but hotly-contested power line construction will be key

The Eastern Interconnection (EI), the world’s biggest power system, delivers electricity to 270 million customers. By 2026, system operators will be able to maintain power reliability with more than ten times the current amount of wind and solar on the system today, according to the recently-released Eastern Renewable Generation Integration Study (ERGIS).

That forecast takes into account only existing technologies, but that doesn’t mean the capability will be automatic. Increasing on today’s 40 GW of wind and solar in the EI region will only make sense if there’s adequate transmission to deliver the electricity to offtakers, the study found.

But developing that dramatic increase of today’s estimated 35 GW to 40 GW of wind and solar resources will only make sense if there is adequate transmission to deliver the output to EI region off-takers.

Whether that will happen remains up in the air, experts told Utility Dive.

 “The resource is not the issue. It is the delivery system that is the issue,” said Wind on the Wires (WOW) Executive Director Beth Soholt, who has spent over 15 years working for new transmission throughout the Midwest.
Veteran transmission authority Roger Rosenqvist, now a vice president at ABB, agrees the lack of new wires is a real barrier.
“With the necessary renewables so remote from load centers, I doubt there is any way to integrate 30% renewables into the Eastern Interconnection without some expansion of existing transmission,” he said. “The problem is how to pay for it.”
The Eastern Interconnect

The Eastern Interconnect at 30% renewables

The EI is a 50,000 line, alternating current (AC) system served by over 5,600 generators. Its footprint spans the U.S. and Canada, from Nova Scotia to Florida and from the Atlantic coast to the foot of the Rocky Mountains.

It contains six of the eight U.S. regional reliability entities, as well as the former Southeast Reliability Corporation (SERC), which includes Duke, Southern Company, and TVA.

The study’s “one big insight” is that 30% renewables can reliably integrated into the EI in either of two scenarios, study author Aaron Bloom said.

“It can be done with an intra-regional transmission expansion and 20% wind and 10% photovoltaic solar,” he said. “Or it can be done with an inter-regional transmission expansion and 20% onshore wind, 5% offshore wind, and 5% PV solar.”

In either scenario, 60% of the solar PV capacity was utility-scale solar and 40% was distributed solar, he added.

This is the first time simulations this sophisticated have shown this level of renewables could be managed on the EI in the five minute intervals energy markets currently use, Bloom said. That is key, because reliable dispatch at that pace alleviates system operators’ concerns about wind and solar variability.

Five minute dispatch allows “instantaneous wind-solar penetrations of 50% or more,” Bloom said. “We are pretty confident most of the country can get to 30% annual penetration levels and intervals with renewables at 55% or 60% would not be show stoppers.”

As wind and solar penetrations rise, a number of changes would likely happen, the study reports.

Existing fossil and hydro generation would have to ramp up and down more rapidly and frequently to balance variability. Under study parameters, coal plants would be used about 20% more often and natural gas plants would be used over 40% more often.

Fossil plants would also run for shorter periods, which could compensate for increased operational wear and tear. Overall fossil generation would drop 30% and CO2 emissions would drop 33% in the highest renewables scenarios studied.

Power flow across the EI would be faster and more frequent, allowing system operators to take advantage of peaking wind or solar generation. Regional power trading would follow wind and solar load patterns.

Wind peaks at night and is growing in the western portion of the EI, and afternoon-peaking solar solar is expanding in the EI southeast, Bloom said. “The increased power flow would come from those regional and time zone peaking differences.”

A 60% renewables penetration was the highest for any five minute period in any modeled year. The highest annual average curtailment of wind and solar was 6.2%.

Transmission needed

The needed flexibility that new renewables and new transmission would deliver will only come through regulatory changes and new market designs that are “outside the scope of the ERGIS study,” Bloom said.

Assumptions about transmission were based on three scenarios “developed independently by the Eastern Interconnection Planning Collaborative (EPIC),” the ERGIS study reports.

ERGIS did not identify specific transmission projects, but described an optimal build-out of both inter-regional high voltage direct current (HVDC) lines, likely built on a merchant basis, and new intra-regional AC line additions to existing systems built by their operators, said American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) Research Director Michael Goggin, who was part of the EIPC process.

Inter-regional AC and HVDC transmission is now in development across the country “but not on the scale the study envisions,” he said.

The modeled high renewables penetrations would be more easily achieved with new transmission for at least three basic reasons, according to the Eastern Interconnect study.

  • Integration and balancing of “hundreds of GW of wind and PV generation depends on generator and transmission operators offering their capabilities to the system operator;”
  • Market participants will require “significant, additional coordination across multiple areas in order to act on resource availability that is multiple regions away,” and;
  • Increased balancing with fossil generation “assumed a common thermal generating fleet across scenarios, regardless of renewable penetration,” the study reports.

Current transmission expansion

Siting transmission is a notoriously lengthy and contentious process, but Bloom said another problem the fact that “there’s plenty of generation, and that lowers the drive to build new lines,”

“The study does not say new transmission will absolutely be necessary for the 30% scenario,” he said, “but it will probably be necessary for the 50% and 70% and 90% scenarios needed to deal with climate change.”

Two pieces of big news have come recently from independent, or merchant, transmission developers now working on new HVDC lines to market to power producers and load serving entities (LSEs).

First, Pattern Development has decided to bring its 2,000 MW, 500 kV, HVDC Southern Cross project into the market.

“We have always wanted to move the project, but there was no need to stir up regulators until we were ready to file at their commissions and to stir up landowners until we were ready to start talking to them about rights of way,” said Business Development Manager James Dermody.

Southern Cross was first conceived in 2009, when the Competitive Renewable Energy Zone (CREZ) lines in Texas were being developed, Dermody said. “It is basically an eastward continuation of the CREZ lines to move Texas wind to off-takers in the Southeast that don’t have commercial quality winds.”

The line will run from East Texas, across Louisiana to the Mississippi-Alabama border. Pattern estimates it will provide total economic benefits of over $600 million as well as local annual tax benefits.

Pattern’s development arm is now actively identifying a route corridor and will, in the next 30 days to 60 days, file for permits with Louisiana and Mississippi regulators.

“We came out of the foxhole in the spring of this year because work on our routing is gaining momentum and we want local leaders and landowners to participate with us in that process,” Dermody said.

Next steps include permitting, land acquisition, and completing the interconnection. Construction is scheduled for the first part of 2018, with an online target of spring 2021. Given the challenges of federal environmental and other permitting still ahead, it is an ambitious schedule, he acknowledged.

The permitting processes are not expected to be complicated because the project was designed in coordination with state agencies to avoid known environmental constraints, Dermody said. “Everything right now is pointing to meeting our very aggressive timeline.”

Proposed route of the Southern Cross line
The other big news is that the Plains & Eastern (P&E) Clean Line, a $2 billion, 705-mile, 4,000 MW HVDC transmission system being developed by Clean Line Energy Partners (CLEP), is  moving toward construction. It aims to deliver Oklahoma wind to the Southeast U.S.

“We have been super active across Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Tennessee since the Department of Energy ruling,” said Spokesperson Sarah Bray. “We are planning to start building in late 2017 and we are in detailed discussions with generators and off-takers, including utilities and LSEs in all three states and farther east.”

CLEP only recently overcame jurisdictional complications that prevented Arkansas regulators from permitting the P&E line. Development was stopped until the DOE granted federal eminent domain authority under its Energy Policy Act of 2005 power, allowing CLEP to move ahead with obtaining ROWs.

Though Pattern hopes to avoid regulatory barriers with Southern Cross, CLEP still faces them with its P&E line, as well as the Grain Belt Express Clean Line and Rock Island Clean Line projects.

CLEP is negotiating rights of way (ROWs) with landowners along the P&E route in return for “fair compensation,” Bray said.

Grain Belt may finally be close to advancing as well. It is a 780 mile, $2 billion, HVDC project that would deliver 4,000 MW of Kansas wind to the MISO market.

Grain Belt has been permitted in Kansas, Illinois, and Indiana but CLEP must still overcome Missouri regulators’ objection to its 2014 filing. In response to the Missouri Public Service Commission assertion that Grain Belt does not deliver local benefit to the state, CLEP contracted with the Missouri Joint Municipal Electric Utility Commission (MJMEUC) and re-filed for approval.

The line is expected to save customers of the 35 MJMEUC municipal utilities $10 million annually, according to the public power agency’s analysis. A Missouri Department of Economic Development economic impact analysis showed Grain Belt will also support an estimated 1,500 Missouri jobs during each of its three construction years.

“We are hoping for a decision on the new filing in early-to-mid-2017 so construction can start in 2018 and the project can be online in 2021,” Bray said.

The Rock Island Clean Line, however, still faces regulatory complications preventing approval by the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) and recently suffered a setback when an appellate court reversed its unanimous 2014 approval from the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC).

It is a $2 billion, 500 mile HVDC project that would deliver 3,500 MW of Iowa wind to the MISO and PJM Interconnection markets.

The appellate court ruled Rock Island does not serve the public use in Illinois. But the Illinois court’s decision ignores the fact that “100% of the project’s low-cost electricity would be delivered into a ComEd substation in Illinois, and would be available to serve Illinois customers, and would reduce energy prices in Illinois by $320 million in the first year of operation,” CLEP argues.

CLEP, ICC attorneys, and other Illinois groups have appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court and will also argue that if the decision stands it will create barriers to competition and lead to higher electricity prices, Bray said.

In Iowa, Rock Island needs authority to exercise eminent domain in obtaining ROWs. But Iowa law requires project developers to complete the potentially costly and time-consuming process of obtaining ROWs before applying for a permit granting that authority.

“The IUB has not denied the permit,” Bray said. “We have asked the IUB to permit Rock Island on the basis of the portion of ROWs we have already obtained or will obtain but we have been unable to get them to move.”

The federal authority CLEP was able to use in Arkansas does not apply in Iowa, she added.

CLEP began planning merchant transmission development in 2009 and knew from the start it would face obstacles “because there aren’t many people trying to do this,” Bray said. “It is hard, but big projects take a long time, and when you pass a milestone like the DOE granting use of its federal authority, it is exciting.”

The increasing demand for renewables has also led to new merchant HVDC projects in New England and the West. The 192 mile, 1,090 MW Northern Pass HVDC line will deliver Canadian hydropower to New Hampshire and load centers further south. The 333 mile, 1,000 MW Champlain Hudson Power Express HVDC line will deliver Canadian hydro and Maine wind to New York.

West Coast load centers are waiting for TransWest Express, Zephyr Power, SunZia, Western Spirit, and other merchant projects to deliver remote High Plains wind and desert Southwest solar.

“The country is moving toward a cleaner energy future regardless of where the politics are,” Bray said. “Polls show people want clean energy and it can now be delivered at a price that is competitive with any other resource. To make that happen we need to build this infrastructure.”

CLEP projects aim to move wind energy from the center of the country to load centers near the coasts.

Overlays connect the dots

Beyond merchant transmission projects, another way to expand system flexibility is emerging.

The Clean Lines and Southern Cross are “pipelines to deliver renewables,” ABB’s Rosenqvist said. “Transmission overlays would add uncommitted transmission capacity to give grid operators the flexibility to shift the renewables-generated power those pipelines deliver.”

The merchant lines will deliver some of the EI’s renewables potential but “all the lines currently in planning do not even get close to the 30% target,” he added.

A transmission overlay would provide new capacity within the EI and new merchant lines would deliver renewables from outside the EI, Rosenqvist said. “It would be like the interstate highway system with multiple paths and excess capacity so generation across the U.S. could be re-dispatched to load centers without creating bottlenecks.”

The obstacle to building an overlay is finding a way to allocate the cost, Rosenqvist believes. Reliability areas allocate new project costs across their rate bases but an overlay connecting two systems would require a new rate structure allocating costs to both systems.

System operators have only recently begun to work out cost allocation for new transmission within their footprints and a push at FERC for inter-regional cost allocation “has not gotten very far,” he said.

FERC Order 1000 was a step forward in inter-regional transmission planning and cost allocation but it has fallen short, AWEA’s Goggin agreed. “There is no effective mechanism for paying for lines between systems yet there is a huge amount of congestion and savings for consumers are being lost because of insufficient transmission between regions that would pay for itself.”

Yet “the speed and scale of adequate resource deployment depends critically on the speed of transmission deployment – especially across regions,” AWEA argued in a recent FERC filing.

Wind on the Wire’s Soholt has been working with MISO on early stage overlay planning that would identify and combine “reliability needs and economic opportunities,” according to a recent presentation from the grid operator.

“The transition the generation fleet is going through is one of the big drivers because an overlay would allow MISO flexibility while keeping the grid reliable,” Soholt said.

Allocating costs for new transmission will be challenging, she agreed. “But if MISO can show value over the long term in lowering wholesale prices or meeting public policy needs or allowing the flexibility to bring new resources online, it could build consensus for moving forward.”

Historically, transmission to deliver new generation was built to meet load growth but load growth today is flat, Soholt said. Now transmission will be added to reliably serve load while taking advantage of renewables to meet public policy needs while keeping costs low.

“Wind in the Midwest and solar in the Southwest are cost-effective now but all regions should be looking at adding renewables because wind and solar are soon going to be cost-effective in one way or another everywhere,” she said.

Like AWEA, WOW has argued to FERC that Order 1000 efforts to drive inter-regional transmission growth need to improve, Soholt said.

“We hope SPP and MISO will be able to incorporate an overlay into the 2017 that could produce candidate lines,” she said.


California has too much solar power. It needs another grid to share with.

This article was originally published on on April 8, 2016 and was written by David Roberts

The US has no national electricity grid. Instead, it has a patchwork of grids, operated as closed-off regional and local fiefdoms with little trade among them.

One of the most important steps America can take to integrate more wind and solar power is to connect and expand those grids.

California is trying to take a small step in that direction. In the process, it is revealing the kinds of political tensions that stand in the way of grid integration.

California needs somewhere to put all its solar energy

The story comes to us via an excellent report by Lauren Sommer at KQED Science. It’s about a problem that’s beginning to hit in California — and will hit in other places in years to come, as renewable energy spreads.

Every so often, solar panels in California produce more solar energy than the grid needs. When these oversupply events occur, grid operators manually “curtail” solar production, cutting some panels off from the grid, effectively letting clean, zero-carbon energy go to waste.

solar curtailment
The dreaded curtailment in California on March 27, 2016.

This doesn’t happen all that often yet — roughly 2.2 GWh of renewable energy were curtailed due to oversupply in 2014, relative to the 44,000 GWh of renewable energy the grid used — but the problem is expected to get worse as wind and solar expand in the state.

This illustrates the key challenge that wind and solar (together known as variable renewable energy, or VRE) pose to self-contained grids: their intermittency. A lot of solar comes flooding in at midday, and then it all goes away at night. Sometimes it can go away all at once and come back a few minutes later (a phenomenon known as “clouds”). Wind can come all at once and then die down all at once.

It’s a challenge for today’s grids to handle both the quantities involved at peak VRE production times and the steep “ramps” up or down in supply and demand that come with VRE.

california's duck curve.
Fear the duck.

There are many ways to tackle the challenges of integrating VRE. I’ve written about the big picture here and more fine-grained, near-term solutions here.

But perhaps the easiest way to solve the problem, or at least postpone it, is to make the grid bigger. The larger the geographical area the grid covers, the more variations in supply and demand can be smoothed out. When one area is at peak VRE production, it can ship power to other areas rather than curtail it.

That’s just what the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) wants to do: link up California’s grid with those around it. “You’re operating your little piece of the system,” CAISO VP Keith Casey told Sommer of KQED, “but if you can operate it as an integrated whole, you can just operate the system more efficiently.”

Conceptually, this makes all the sense in the world. When it comes to the details, though, the politics can get sticky.

California’s clean grid meets PacifiCorp’s dirty one

There are a number of grid “balancing authorities” (grids run by particular utilities) near California, to which it could theoretically connect:

western interconnection balancing authorities

(Follow the link to see what all those acronyms stand for.)

CAISO’s first partnership is with PacifiCorp, a utility that runs a grid in Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Oregon.

CAISO and PacifiCorp.
CAISO and PacifiCorp.

(Earlier this year I wrote about Oregon’s pledge to go coalfree and how it would affect PacifiCorp.)

There are already some (currently little-used) power lines strung between the two regions, which could be used for greater coordination between CAISO and PacifiCorp. So they are planning an integration of their operations, scheduled to be in effect by 2019:

CAISO integration plan

A PacifiCorp-funded study found that the integration would benefit ratepayers across both regions. And it would certainly help CAISO find a way to export (rather than curtail) its excess solar energy.

But there’s a wrinkle.

If CAISO and PacifiCorp become one big grid, it opens up all sorts of regulatory and legal questions. Who manages an interstate grid? Who regulates it? Do California’s laws apply to it? Can they, legally speaking?

PacifiCorp is a big owner of coal plants — 60 percent of its energy comes from coal. All that coal will now effectively be on California’s grid. California has worked hard, economically and politically, to clean up its grid. What will happen to that progress?

These concerns led several state lawmakers to write the governor laying out a list of “significant unanswered questions” and requirements related to the integration.

California lawmakers' signatures. "Don't forget geothermal!"
California lawmakers' signatures. "Don't forget geothermal!"(CAISO)
California lawmakers’ signatures. “Don’t forget geothermal!”

They want to ensure that California’s pollution and greenhouse gases continue to be reduced, that California’s renewable energy mandates continue to be met, that California ratepayers benefit, and that investment not be shifted into PacifiCorp’s territory at California’s expense.

And because CAISO and its board were created by the legislature, presumably a new act of the legislature would be required to expand them, so these legislators will have to be heard and satisfied. (I asked a top staffer if their questions had been answered to their satisfaction; they have not.)

These parochial concerns make complete sense. These politicians are, after all, representing Californians.

But the bigger picture remains: Grid expansion has to happen eventually. The climate certainly doesn’t care about California’s emissions; it only cares about total emissions. If sharing VRE with PacifiCorp lowers overall emissions, it is to the good, even if Californians consume less VRE than they might otherwise have. Somehow, the economics and politics of grid expansion have to be worked out.

The perils of state-based climate and energy policy

California’s experience reveals some of the dysfunctions that come with the US lacking a coherent national climate policy. When each state with green ambitions has its own regulations, its own targets, its own mandates, even its own grid, it can feel protective of its own progress and loath to dilute it by hooking up with more laggardly states.

California has installed a lot of distributed solar PV.
California has installed a lot of distributed solar PV. (EIA)
California has installed a lot of distributed solar PV.

And California legislators are not crazy to feel that way. Wyoming and Utah are fighting tooth and nail against Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Wyoming is deeply invested in coal production. Oregon-based PacifiCorp is heavily invested in coal plants (though it ismoving away from them). Opening CAISO’s grid to possible federal oversight also opens it to various federal lawsuits, many launched by laggardly states, meant to stop clean energy regulations.

Then again, it’s the laggardly states that need the renewable energy, and the clean states that have got it — in California’s case, at least temporarily, too much of it.

Hooking up into larger and larger grids is part of the logic of transitioning to clean energy. It is necessary in order for California to hit its ambitious 50 percent renewables target. And it’s probably necessary in order for the US to hit the targets it promised in Paris.

On some time scale, a national grid is both necessary and inevitable.

In addition to their utility, power lines make for very dramatic photographs.
In addition to their utility, power lines make for very dramatic photographs. (Shutterstock)
More of these.

Transmission is a one-time fix

Variable renewable energy poses what you might call “whole system” challenges to energy grids. Once VRE rises to a certain level of penetration, it begins to swing between producing more energy than the system needs to and producing, in periods of extended calm or clouds, almost none.

Unless you can do something about those huge peaks and valleys, you need almost 100 percent redundancy — enough backup power plants to supply 100 percent of demand in the event that VRE is providing none.

But big coal and nuclear plants can’t just turn off in the morning and turn on in the evening. Even where they are physically capable, it’s too expensive. So you end up needing lots and lots of natural gas plants. Not ideal.

The way states and countries have achieved high VRE penetration to date is by cheating these whole-system problems. They cheat it by making the system bigger, hooking up transmission to surrounding grids so that they can offload the their occasional VRE surplus and import power to back up their VRE.

That’s what Denmark did, linking its grid to Sweden, Norway, and Germany so that it can export wind power when it has more than it needs and import power when the wind is idle.

denmark interconnections
Denmark, connected.

That’s what CAISO is trying to do, linking to surrounding Western states.

But note that this is a one-time-only way to postpone the problem. Eventually states or regions are going to reach a point where there are no more bigger grids to hook up. And then the whole-system problems return. At that point, the system can’t be made any bigger, so the problems have to be solved some other way.

We still have to sort out storage and shift demand

One way to tackle the problems is cheap and effective energy storage, to absorb the midday VRE surplus and return power at night or when it’s cloudy.

the garage of the future

The other big one is figuring out ways to shift demand so that it coincides better with periods of peak VRE production. There are lots of ways to do that, from incentives that change human behavior to automated networks of electric vehicle batteries to … water heaters.

California is smart to set its sights on a bigger grid. It will ease the immediate problem. But the state should also be pushing as hard as possible toward better storage and better demand shifting (and all the other strategies I covered here), because sooner or later the whole-system problems have to be solved, and the sooner they are, the greater the long-term payoff.

Zond wind turbines rise up among a young corn crop at the Buffalo Ridge wind farm in SW Minnesota.

Making Way for Wind Power

This article was originally published by the New York Times Editorial Board on April 5, 2016. 

If the United States is going to get serious about cutting carbon emissions from oil and gas, it will have to find ways to scale up its use of renewable energy. Converting wind and solar power into electricity is, in some ways, the easy part. The bigger challenge is developing the infrastructure to transmit that electricity across the country.

In the case of wind, most of that power is generated far from the urban centers that would use it. Transmission would require a new nationwide system of power lines reaching from the windiest parts of the country. Such a system could also allow power suppliers the flexibility to shift supply depending on variations in weather.

Russ Pisciotta is opposed to installing power lines on his farm in Missouri. Credit: Christopher Smith for The New York Times

But some residents in those areas don’t want power lines crossing their property. One project, called the Grain Belt Express and intended to run from Kansas to Illinois, is on hold after being voted down by the Missouri Public Service Commission. There was considerable opposition from landowners, who worried the lines would be unsightly or interfere with farming. Some area residents also objected to the idea of companies building on Missourians’ land in order to sell power elsewhere.

Transmission lines are generally safe, but they would change the appearance of open space in the West and the Midwest. In some cases, lines can be placed underground. But underground lines are far more expensive to construct and maintain than aboveground lines, and lower costs would translate into lower electricity rates for consumers. Lower rates could also speed the nation’s transition from gas-powered cars to hybrid and electric vehicles, further reducing emissions.

Clean Line Energy Partners, the company behind the Grain Belt Express, plans to submit a new application to the Missouri Public Service Commission later this year. The company recently won approval from the Department of Energy for transmission lines stretching from Oklahoma to Tennessee. Clean Line will pay landowners the full market value for easements of land it builds on, plus an annual payment for each structure it builds on their property.

To bring landowners on board, companies will have to pay good prices and be sensitive to local concerns, involving communities early in the planning process. But the country won’t be able to make a swift transition to renewable energy if landowners and local regulators stand in the way.