Study shows US could convert its economy to renewable energy without battery breakthrough

Alexander MacDonald, a co-author of the study and the recently retired director of NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, says studying the national weather map gave him the idea.

“I heard people talking about how renewable energy doesn’t work because it’s intermittent, and I remember saying, ‘It’s intermittent if you just have it over a really small area, but weather is big,’” MacDonald recalls. “If you look at a weather map, you see, for example, a giant high [pressure system] in the western United States and a low [pressure system] that’s windy in the east, and you can kind of deduce that if you can share the power over a large area, then it’s not intermittent. So I wanted to find out if that was true.”

MacDonald’s study, called NEWS, the National Electricity with Weather System, began six years ago. It uses a complicated optimization model based on weather forecasting to analyze the cost of energy production.

“I decided, with my team, that we would do a ‘cost minimization,’ MacDonald explains. “In other words, we would allow wind, solar and other sources, like natural gas, and even nuclear and coal, to be part of the study and we would minimize the total cost of the system, with the requirement that it supplied electric energy to 250 places over the United States every hour for a year.”

The team found that the larger the geographic area, the more effectively wind and solar can compete with other energy sources — for the exact reason MacDonald hypothesized. He explains it this way:

“In a small area, if the wind stops in part of the area, it stops over most of the area. Take the state of Kansas: if it’s not blowing on one side of Kansas, it’s probably not blowing on the other side. However, if you take the whole [lower] 48 states, you can always find places where it is pretty windy. That’s essentially what the study showed us.”

The study had another intriguing result: It showed that renewable energy can compete on price even without a major breakthrough in battery storage technology.

“We included storage as one of the things we could use,” MacDonald says. “We included transmission where we could move power over a small area or we could move it over the whole country. We basically said to this optimization [program], ‘You choose what is the best option.’”

The optimization chose transmitting power across the country as the least expensive way to use wind and solar energy. “It showed that we could have costs of electricity about the same as today, but it would reduce carbon dioxide up to 80 percent — so I think it’s a pretty important result,” MacDonald says.

There is a possible downside to the findings. In order for the system to work as efficiently as MacDonald and his team calculate, the nation would have to build massive transmission lines that would send high voltage direct current from coast to coast.

These lines can transmit “huge amounts of electric energy a long ways, but still within the cost envelope of the studies that we looked at,” MacDonald says.

But recent history has shown that people strongly oppose these powerful transmission lines passing through their neighborhoods or across their farms.

“I think people are going to have to weigh it like everything else,” MacDonald says. “If we want to preserve the future, this shows policymakers a way to do it — and it’s not for free. You might have to have overland lines; you might have to pay extra money — say, add a penny per kilowatt hour to your electric bill to have underground lines. But it gives us an option to have a low-carbon and low-cost energy economy, and we think that’s a pretty valuable possibility.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood

Tapping the Power of the Great Plains to Light Up Faraway Cities

This article originally appeared on Bloomberg on February 9, 2016 and was written by   and  .

There’s enough untapped wind howling across the vast plains of Oklahoma and Kansas to generate more electricity than a dozen nuclear power plants. What’s missing are transmission lines to ship it from spinning turbines to faraway homes and businesses.

That’s why Clean Line Energy Partners LLC plans to spend $9 billion on power transmission across the Great Plains, Midwest and the Southwest, including a 720-mile (1,158-kilometer) proposal awaiting approval from the U.S. Energy Department. It would be one of the longest high-voltage direct current lines built in a generation, and is among at least 11 proposed projects that may open up vast expanses for wind and solar farms with more than 26 gigawatts of capacity.

Renewable energy advocates say long-distance transmission will tap the wind and solar potential of the Great Plains and Sun Belt the way pipelines opened up once-inaccessible oil fields in Alaska and Siberia. These projects are seen as essential to helping states comply with President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which requires them to reduce emissions from power plants, and will help the U.S. meet its goals of getting 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

“It doesn’t take a genius to say that the challenge is on the transmission side,” said Michael Skelly, president of Houston-based Clean Line. “That would enable a lot of renewable energy projects.”

It’s not easy to build transmission lines across vast regions of the country. The permitting process varies by state and can take a decade. Opposition can be fierce from landowners who don’t want high-voltage lines lines cutting through their farms or backyards. And officials can be leery of supporting projects that ships power through their jurisdiction only to deliver it to another state.

Clean Line, which is proposing five separate lines, asked Iowa regulators to suspend review of its 500-mile Rock Island line last year as the company plots its course through the approval process amid opposition from landowners. In July, Missouri’s Public Service Commission voted to block the company’s 780-mile Grain Belt Express line, saying the developer hadn’t proven the need for the $2 billion project.

“Transmission is the industry’s biggest long-term opportunity,” said Rob Gramlich, a senior vice president at the American Wind Energy Association, a Washington-based trade group. “But it’s also its biggest challenge.”

Clean Line

Clean Line was founded in 2009 by Skelly, a veteran of Horizon Wind Energy, which Goldman Sachs Group Inc. sold to EDP-Energias de Portugal SA in 2007. Clean Line is backed by ZBI Ventures, the investment firm controlled by the Ziff family.

The project awaiting final approval from the Energy Department, the Plains & Eastern Clean Line, will cost as much as $2.5 billion. It will be able to carry as much as 4,000 megawatts of power, linking wind farms in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas with utilities in Tennessee, Arkansas and elsewhere in the Southeast.

The company plans to break ground next year and expects to complete it by 2020. East Texas Electric Cooperative agreed in May to buy 50 megawatts of capacity on the line.

Other developers are planning long-haul lines to move clean power across the country.

Anbaric Transmission is developing two projects in New England with National Grid Plc. A 250-mileline from wind farms in Maine to Boston is awaiting state approval. A 60-mile link from upstate New York wind farms to Vermont may be complete by 2020 and the Chicago developer Invenergy LLC and the Canadian utility Hydro-Quebec have both agreed to use it. Anbaric hasn’t determined costs for either project.

Vermont, New York

Transmission Developers Inc., backed by Blackstone Group LP, has proposed two lines to ship energy from Canadian hydro plants to Vermont and New York City, with a total estimated cost of $3.4 billion. And SunZia Transmission LLC is awaiting state approval for a pair of 515-mile lines that will cost $1.2 billion and will carry power from solar and wind farms in New Mexico to customers in Arizona and California.

Amy Grace, Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s lead wind analyst, said the question remains whether it would be cheaper to build wind farms on the outskirts of cities, where land prices are higher but transmission is easier.

“Will the cost of building wind in the central regions be so much cheaper than building wind closer to demand centers?” Grace said.

Filling a Gap

“Up until the last 10 years, no one had given much consideration to long-haul transmission,” says Bill Miller, president and CEO of TransWest Express LLC, which is planning a 730-mile line from Wyoming to Las Vegas. The Denver-based company plans to start construction in 2017 on the $3 billion project, which needs federal approval.

Most recent transmission projects are shorter lines designed to increase the reliability of grids, rather than send power long distances, said James Hoecker, counsel to Wires, the transmission industry’s Washington-based trade group. Utilities typically don’t have much motivation to build long lines that extend beyond their service areas.

Clean Line and the other developers are seeking to fill that gap. Because local power companies are usually state-based and state-regulated, Skelly said they don’t focus on how to serve entire regions, or how to run wires from wind-whipped plains to energy-hungry cities.

“Utilities don’t wake up thinking, ‘how do I get power to Atlanta?’” he said.


US$1.6 billion Northern Pass transmission line will deliver Canadian hydropower to the U.S.

This article originally appeared on Hydroworld  and was written by Gregory Pointdexter. 


The US$1.6 billion Northern Pass transmission line that could tap into 1,096 MW from Canada’s largest hydropower producer, HydroQuebec, was approved Dec. 7, by a 6-0 vote of New Hampshire’s Site Evaluation Committee [SEC].

Issues remain, but if a federal permit is issued and the state SEC approves the plan, construction could begin in 2017 and the power to start flowing in spring 2019.

Once the SEC issues its written decision on the completeness question, expected by Dec. 18, a one-year clock starts ticking for the SEC to complete its review. Steps along the way include more public hearings in each of the five counties touched by the project.

The panel accepted the application by Hartford, Connecticut-based Eversource to run a 192-mile transmission line from Pittsburg to Deerfield, carrying energy from Canada to Southern New England markets.

Sixty miles of the line will be buried and project supporters say it will create jobs and lower costs in a region that routinely pays the nation’s highest average cost for electricity. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports New England consumers will pay 19.29 cents per kWH in 2015, more than 50% higher than the national average of 12.56 cents.

“The SEC’s [Site Evaluation Committee’s] thorough review process continues with a series of public information sessions and other hearings early in the year that will allow people from across the state to comment and directly participate,” the company said. “We look forward to continuing our conversations with New Hampshire residents, and working together to secure our energy future.”

Opponents have argued the project will hurt property values, tourism and the environment.

The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and New England Power Generators Association had asked the SEC to declare the Eversource application incomplete, saying the company has not provided supporting data it has full control of land intended for the power line.

The forest society has also sued, claiming Eversource does not have the right to use a highway right-of-way that goes through land owned by the society. The state’s Department of Environmental Services also submitted comments saying it believed the application was incomplete.

“The SEC’s action was disappointing but not altogether unexpected,” society spokesman Jack Savage said. “As they acknowledged, certain property rights are in dispute. The question is when and how those property right issues are taken into consideration by the SEC, and the answer to that question remains.”

Electric power lines and transmission towers in Denver metro area

Americans for a Clean Energy Grid to Host Southwest Transmission Summit April 1st

On April 1st, Americans for a Clean Energy Grid (ACEG) will host its 10th Regional Clean Energy Summit in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Southwest is a prime area for renewable energy development, with Arizona and New Mexico both ranked very highly in solar and wind potential. Pair that with relatively low demand, and the need for high-voltage transmission to move power to markets and load centers is great.

Recent transmission projects such as SunZia, the Tres Amigas Superstation, Lucky Corridor and Clean Line Energy Centennial West are all working to integrate the rich clean energy resources of the region with power markets. Speakers and panelists such as Sen. Martin Heinrich, former FERC Commissioner Suedeen Kelly, and New Mexico Public Regulation Commission Chair Karen Montoya will explore the issues at play, challenges and opportunities for the region, including:

  • Will inter-regional transmission usher in a national clean energy grid and if so, do we want one?
    A major impediment to developing, delivering, and balancing the nation’s best and most abundant renewable resources is the lack of transmission capacity to move electricity between balancing authorities, planning regions, regional transmission organizations (RTOs), and interconnections. New Mexico is home to rich wind and solar resources and also sits at the intersection of the nation’s three major interconnections, making it an ideal place to examine this potential.
  • Is transmission a good investment for reliability, resource, and economic development?
    Transmission supports wind and solar development, stabilizes electricity prices for all customers, and provides reliable and affordable power to major industries, including agriculture, information technology, manufacturing, and energy. Numerous transmission proposals in various stages of development and approval provide models renewable resources in New Mexico and the Southwest.
  • Are transmission expansions and upgrades compatible with both small and large scale clean energy?
    States across the region and the country are struggling to adapt longstanding policies and regulations to rapid changes in distributed energy technologies, notably steep drops in the cost of residential solar PV panels, energy efficiency, smart controls, and energy storage. New approaches are emerging that recognize and value the benefits of both the grid and distributed generation, and allow both to move forward without harming each other.
  • Does transmission have a role in achieving environmental goals?
    EPA’s regional haze rule and its proposed Clean Power Plan to regulate carbon emissions are ushering in a rapid transition away from a predominantly coal-powered generation fleet to one powered by much higher shares of renewables and natural gas. This panel will highlight the potential role of transmission, renewables, and other clean energy resources in achieving near and long term environmental goals in a timely and cost effective manner.

ACEG’s Southwest Clean Energy Transmission Summit will be held April 1st at the University of New Mexico Science & Technology Park in Albuquerque. More details and registration can be found here.

New ACORE Report Covers Transmission Integration of Renewables in U.S. and Europe

A new report from the American Council on Renewable Energy recently released a report entitled “Renewable Energy at Scale in the U.S. and Europe: Lessons Learned and Best Practices.” Authors from the German Embassy, IBM, U.S. Department of Energy, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, and the Energy Future Coalition provide insights on various policies, incentives and methods used in increasing the share of renewable energy in the electric system.

EFC’s Ben Springer offered an assessment of the challenges and opportunities of integrating renewable energy into the high-voltage transmission system in the U.S. and Europe. The piece touches on physical and technical constraints in the transmission system, regulatory constructs governing the grid, and best practices in market structures for renewables.

The report is available for free on ACORE’s website here.

Circuit Court Decision A Boon for Clean Energy Transmission

Last month, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled to uphold the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) Order 1000, which establishes rules for planning and sharing the costs of interstate electric transmission lines needed to connect large renewable resources in remote areas with consumers and businesses, and to make the grid more efficient and reliable.

At root, the case focused on three key provisions of Order 1000 that were challenged by petitioners:

  1. Mandatory regional transmission planning linked to cost allocation and inter-regional coordination in all regions of the country;
  2. Requiring transmission planners to consider relevant “public policies” – i.e. power plant emissions standards, state and federal climate change policies, and renewable portfolio standards – in deciding which lines to build; and
  3. The removal of the “right of first refusal,” which has previously given incumbent transmission owners priority in developing new projects.

The court agreed with FERC that all of these policies would benefit consumers by making transmission investments less duplicative, faster, and more competitive.  Better planning, in turn, will make the grid more efficient, reliable and resilient, and will accelerate the development of abundant and affordable clean and renewable energy resources around the country.

The country’s transmission infrastructure has been sorely neglected, and the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated a $37 billion investment gap by 2020 based on current transmission plans. The interstate and interregional lines targeted by FERC in Order 1000 are most significant for the coming transition from a fossil-fuel powered electric generation fleet to one where renewable resources dominate.  A robust transmission network is the key to unlocking diverse and abundant renewable resources like wind and solar and integrating them across large geographical regions to deliver reliable, affordable, and sustainable electricity to customers in every part of the country.

Order 1000’s public policy provision is key to both meeting state renewable portfolio standards, and to the pursuit of the Obama Administration’s Climate Action Plan goals. Greater grid access to renewable resources means not only more affordable, zero-marginal cost electricity, but also avoided emissions from fossil-fired generation. In light of the US EPA’s Clean Power Plan rulemaking, states, grid operators, and transmission developers should welcome the public policy provision in making their emissions reductions targets more attainable.

The court also affirmed FERC’s decision to eliminate federal “rights of first refusal” for incumbent transmission owners.  Under the new rule, incumbent transmission owners will no longer have the power to stop transmission lines which might bring cheaper cleaner generation into their service territories.  Independent transmission companies who commit resources to developing proposals will not have to worry about having their projects excluded from consideration, stalled indefinitely, or built by the incumbent.  The more open and competitive environment established by Order 1000 will foster the development of more creative and efficient transmission solutions.

Although it is a complex piece of regulation, Order 1000 is a benefit to consumers, the climate, and the US electricity system. Americans for a Clean Energy Grid applauds the Circuit Court decision, and supports Order 1000 as a key component of moving towards a clean, affordable energy future.

Transmission Policy, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Grid

Americans for a Clean Energy Grid’s Ben Springer and John Jimison recently wrote an article (excerpted below) for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association. The piece outlined the opportunities for expanding electricity transmission, and the political challenges standing in the way. The full article can be accessed here.

The scientific community has reached consensus that greenhouse gas emissions must fall 80% by 2050 if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. In the US, the Obama administration has recently revived efforts to act on climate, and is pursuing several administrative actions aimed at reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants.

In order to get us to the 80% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050, significant reforms of the electricity sector – which accounts for 33% of US emissions – are needed. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory reported that we are able to meet this goal with current resources and technology. In order to achieve this goal, we need to tap rich renewable resources such as wind in the Great Plains and solar power in the desert southwest. The key, however, will be the development of transmission to move the energy from where it is produced to where it is needed.

This seems like an easy solution: renewable energy is concentrated in remote areas, so let’s build the requisite wires to get it to population centers. Unfortunately, it’s not that straightforward. High voltage transmission lines are large, unsightly and expensive. The regulatory wrangling around allocating costs and siting lines is byzantine, time-consuming and often becomes acrimonious.  And many states and utilities that rely on fossil fuel generation – which is usually located relatively close to demand centers – often aren’t interested in new transmission.


Twin Cities Event Showcases Renewable Energy in the Great Plains

The Great Plains contain some of the richest renewable energy resources in the country. States like Minnesota are beginning to tap into the clean, affordable wind energy in the region. Yet, there is the potential to include even more renewable energy on the grid.

In order to realize this, though, significant investment is needed in our electric transmission system. Many challenges remain to accessing the wind energy – and resultant savings in energy costs – in the region, such as cost-allocation, permitting and land owner compensation.

To this end, Americans for a Clean Energy Grid is hosting the Great Plains Clean Energy Transmission Summit October 21st, with support from our sponsor Midwest Energy News. The event will feature expert panelists exploring the obstacles and opportunities of a clean energy grid in the region. While the Great Plains will be highlighted, we will also underscore the common themes from our previous events around the country. The event is free, and breakfast and lunch will be provided.

Learn more and RSVP here!

Confirmed speakers include:

  • Kristine M. Schmidt, President, ITC Great Plains
  • Phyllis Reha, Former Commissioner, Minnesota Public Utility Commission
  • Michael Skelly, President, Clean Line Energy Partners
  • Michael Noble, Executive Director, Fresh Energy
  • Johnathan Hladik, Energy Policy Advocate, Center for Rural Affairs
  • Teresa Mogensen, Vice President of Transmission, Xcel Energy
  • Rolf Nordstrom, Executive Director, Great Plains Institute
  • Beth Soholt, Executive Director, Wind on the Wires
  • Ken Paulman, Editor, Midwest Energy News
  • John Moore, Senior Attorney, Sustainable FERC Project
  • Will Kaul, Vice President of Transmission, Great River Energy
  • Jim Fixsen, Central Region Sales Manager, Bell Lumber & Poles
  • Frank James, Staff Director, Dakota Rural Action
  • Al Bloniarz, Executive Vice President of Business Development, Systems Control
  • Dan Haugen, Energy Journalism Fellow, Midwest Energy News
  • Dan Prowse, Special Projects and Renewable Energy Officer, Manitoba Hydro