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

This article was originally published on VOX.com 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.

Cross-post: How new transmission will bring Wyoming wind to California

This piece was originally posted in Utility Dive on September 10, 2014, written by Herman K. Trabish.

The national energy mix is changing and new transmission is helping make it all possible.

Utilities from National Grid to Arizona Public Service are proposing renewables projects made increasingly practical and cost effective by affordable and flexible U.S. natural gas supplies. Only new transmission lines are necessary to deliver high capacity solar and wind resources to load centers that need them.

As Texas Governor, former President George Bush said he spurred his administration to get the state’s now U.S.-leading wind industry started and then turned to “bottlenecks to getting wind to the marketplace.” The groundwork was laid for new transmission lines that now deliver over 12,000 megawatts of remote wind power to electricity-hungry Texas cities.

Progress on transmission across the rest of the West, however, has been delayed by jurisdictional and permitting complications.

The implications are global. “The country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century,” President Obama said last year while signing an executive memorandum that focused the Federal Rapid Response Team for Transmission (RRTT) on seven crucial projects.

“Our project was designated for RRTT attention,” Transwest Express Director of Communications Kara Choquette told Utility Dive.

The Transwest Express — a $3 billion, 3,000 megawatt capacity, 725 mile high voltage direct current (HVDC) line — would carry Wyoming winds with a capacity factor well over 40% along a route through Utah, Colorado, and Nevada. Interconnections in Utah and at the Hoover Dam could take wind-generated electricity as far as Los Angeles.

The Transwest Express route

The hurdles to building transmission

Aimed at streamlining Federal agencies’ permitting, review and consultation procedures, the RRTT was created in 2009 to resolve the kind of delays the Transwest Express faces.

“RRTT has maintained our progress. I don’t know if it has made it faster,” Choquette said. “Where we are today speaks for itself. The original right of way application was filed with the [Bureau of Land Management] in 2007. The final Environmental Impact Study (EIS) should be published by the end of this year. Seven years of permitting. It just takes a long time.”

It was easier and faster in Milford, Utah, where a DC transmission line runs through, carrying the Intermountain Power Plant‘s coal-generated electricity to Los Angeles. Few people came to the public meeting held there to introduce the Transwest Express, Choquette recalled. “When I asked about the lack of interest, one of them pointed out the window, ‘You’re just going to build another one of those. OK. We know what that is.’”

Wherever possible, the Transwest Express was routed along existing transmission lines, highways, or railroads, Choquette said. But Federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) are required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to consider “a reasonable range of alternatives.”

Along one section of the route, Choquette said, a delay was caused because BLM picked an alternative to Transwest’s proposal. Officials for three separate counties, two in Wyoming and one in Colorado, filed a joint resolution withthe BLM in support of Transwest’s original route. The BLM has reportedly decided, finally, to defer to their preference.

At the most densely populated section of the route in Henderson, Nevada, homeowners came to meetings prepared to vigorously resist a proposed two mile wide corridor that, on maps, looked like it encroached on their properties.

“People thought we wanted the entire corridor,” Choquette said. “Once homeowners realized the route would be inside the corridor on the far side of other existing transmission lines, they were fine with the project.”

Streamlining the process

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process “serves an important purpose,” American Wind Energy Association Senior Counsel Gene Grace told Utility Dive. “But there are some reforms that could streamline the process without sacrificing its goals.”

A crucial fix, Choquette believes, would be establishing a deadline. “Permitting drives the whole development process,” she said. “Our strategy is to de-risk the project for investors by getting it to a higher level of permitting certainty. But making the financial commitment to do all the detailed and expensive planning is riskier when there is no certainty of a fully determined route.”

Wildlife also presents uncertainties. “The rules change,” Choquette said. “When we started, there were no sage grouse corridors in Wyoming. Then they were there in 2009.”

The state of Wyoming has been proactive in wildlife protections, she added. “They realized they needed to both encourage energy infrastructure and protect the best habitat. So they created a transmission corridor next to existing lines and infrastructure. The BLM incorporated Wyoming’s strategy into its sage grouse protection plan.”

Like the Hoover Dam, which went online in 1936 and was “the original renewables project,” Choquette said, “we want to make sure this is done in the right place in the right way from the beginning.”

Not for the faint of heart or wallet

Lines like the Transwest Express were conceived as a way to get great renewable resources to where load was growing and state mandates required them, explained Exeter Associates Principal Kevin Porter, who does transmission research for Lawrence Berkeley National Labs.

But today load is no longer growing and states have met their interim mandates. “Things are pretty tough for transmission right now,” Porter said. “The Wyoming wind resource is very good but may not be good enough to support the expense.”

These projects, Choquette said, quoting a Wyoming official, “are not for the faint of heart or the faint of wallet. You persist because it is needed.”

Wyoming wind could save billions of dollars for California

By sourcing a portion of California power from Wyoming wind, “annual generator cost-savings range from around $500 million to around $1 billion,” Choquette said, citing NREL’s California-Wyoming Grid Integration Study. Over a 50 year transmission lifespan, that is billions for California.

While a cost-benefit ratio of 1.1 or 1.2 typically justifies spending for new transmission, Choquette said, the Transwest Express’ ratio would be at least 1.62, according to the NREL study. Factoring in various avoided costs, it could reach a 3.6 cost-benefit ratio.

“These transmission systems are valuable for delivering remote resources that can’t be supplied in any other way,” former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chair Jon Wellinghoff told Utility Dive. “The other great thing about them is that, like new subway lines, businesses grow up along them. If you put in these lines, they provide the opportunity for people to site remote central station solar systems and look for nearby wind resource areas.”

Transmission Lines to Transport Texas Wind Power to Other States

This post was contributed by Stephanie Dula, Community Manager at SaveOnEnergy.

June 10, 2014

For more than a century, Texas has practically had its own energy infrastructure. In fact, it’s the only state that has its own power grid, the Texas Interconnected System. The rest of the country shares power resources on two different power grids, the Eastern and Western Interconnections.

But it appears that’s soon going to change. A new transmission line was recently approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that will enable Texas to easily share its energy resources with states in the Southeast.

The transmission line, which was proposed by California-based company Pattern Energy will have the capacity to transport 3,000 megawatts of renewable energy from North Texas wind farms to Louisiana and Mississippi. The Southern Cross project, as it’s called, will span about 400 miles, beginning just north of Dallas.

Pattern Energy expects the transmission line to be up and running by 2019.

Why Texas?

Texas is making serious headway in the wind energy industry. Already, the state has more wind energy installed than any other state—12,300 megawatts worth. The next closest state is California, and it only has 5,800 megawatts of installed wind energy capacity.

And the state is quickly spinning up new wind farms and solar arrays. According to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, renewable energy grew 12 percent in 2013.

Texas has already had success implementing a similar transmission line project. At the end of 2013, the state completed a $7 billion transmission line, stretching across 3,600 miles of the Lone Star State. The lines will allow Texas to move as much as 18,500 megawatts of renewable energy from its windiest areas, such as West Texas, to the rest of the state.

Although it’s only been operational for less than a year, the new transmission line project in Texas has helped spur the growth of wind energy even further. ERCOT has already signed interconnection agreements for about 9,000 megawatts worth of renewable energy, 7,000 of which is expected to come on line by 2016.

So far, all of the renewable wind energy is sold through power purchase agreements to utilities or energy providers in Texas’ energy deregulated regions. But Pattern Energy believes there’s a big opportunity to sell the clean energy to companies in other states. Once the Southern Cross project is completed, Pattern Energy will use its affiliate, Pattern Power Marketing, to purchase renewable energy in Texas and then sell it to states in the Southeast.

While it may seem like a great deal for other states, Texas is probably benefitting the most. Electricity will flow both ways on the transmission line. When the state’s energy infrastructure is constrained, it will be able to quickly access the power it needs to prevent blackouts.

There’s a financial benefit too. The new transmission line is expected to cost about $2 billion, boosting the Texas economy with jobs and money. It’s also likely to spur renewable growth in Texas even further, as new companies look to invest and capitalize on Texas’ thriving wind energy industry.

wind turbine blue

MidAmerican Bets Big on Wind

Despite contractions in many sectors of the economy, clean energy is thriving. The numerous benefits to ratepayers, including lower fuel costs and a cleaner power supply, are two reasons why recent purchases of California-based wind projects by MidAmerican Renewables, a subsidiary of energy giant MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company, are a good example.

It’s safe to say that the Berkshire Hathaway-owned company is in the business of making smart long-term decisions, and this transaction bodes well for the future of wind, despite the political battles over renewables taking place inside-the-beltway.

And it’s not just MidAmerican who has taken notice of clean energy’s promise: Google has invested at least $915 million in clean energy, and Goldman Sachs has committed $40 billion over the next decade, to name a few of the higher profile players in the game.

But if investors are ready to spend lots of money and are already putting cash down on wind and solar, then why aren’t we seeing more deals like the one MidAmerican made? The answer is simple: too often, there isn’t a way to get cheap, renewable energy to the businesses and households that need it because building the electricity transmission needed to deliver that power is challenged by a convoluted and parochial set of rules.

Fortunately, this wasn’t a problem for the MidAmerican wind projects, as one can see from their press release: “The projects will interconnect and utilize Southern California Edison’s Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project.”

You can be sure closing this deal would have been much more precarious if a high quality transmission infrastructure were not already in place.

These two wind projects are going to help Californians reach their aggressive 33% RPS, and they’re going to turn a profit for MidAmerican. More deals like this are ready to go through; more new projects are ready to begin. Investors are ready to dive in and smarter policies for building transmission would increase the likelihood that similar projects become a reality.

All we need is a new, modern grid to take us into a profitable, clean, renewable future.

wind turbine

California Greening

California, where utilities added 830 MW of wind and solar capacity last year, is a great example of how smart policies can help drive deployment of clean energy – and lower electricity prices.

That new capacity is an annual record for the state, which has the most aggressive renewable portfolio standard (RPS) in the country.

Take a look at the year-over-year increases in the amount of renewable energy installed to meet the RPS, according to the latest report from the state utility regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC):

It’s not just the quantity of renewable electricity in California that’s exciting. The development of a robust market for clean power capacity and the falling costs of contracts for renewable electricity are equally encouraging. (AWEA’s blog has a good take on the report here.)

As the CPUC sums it up:

“The overall picture is that the renewable market is robust, competitive, and has matured since the start of the RPS program. Based on the current 2011 RPS Solicitation, costs are decreasing, making renewable energy more competitive with fossil fuels.”

Clean power and lower-cost power are two primary goals when we look at building the modern, strategic electricity grid, and incorporating all of that new power into the grid requires transmission. The wires that connect wind and solar electricity to people and businesses are, in fact, a prerequisite to meeting renewable energy goals in California and around the country.

solar panel

Investing in the Solar Future

In a sign of confidence in the future of the American renewable energy market, one of the country’s top investors, Warren Buffet, is betting big on solar.

Buffet’s power company, MidAmerican Energy Holdings, recently announced that it will acquire a 49% stake in a 290MW Arizona solar project, part of the company’s move to “aggressively pursue” expansion in the renewable energy sector.

Word of the NRG project followed an announcement a few weeks ago that MidAmerican plans to buy a huge, 550 MW solar PV plant planned for California – the Topaz project.

Greg Abel, chairman, president and CEO of MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company had this to say:

“As energy needs continue to increase, the Topaz project will allow MidAmerican to produce renewable energy for thousands of Californians. This project also demonstrates that solar energy is a commercially viable technology without the support of governmental loan guarantees and reflects the type of solar and other renewable generation that MidAmerican will continue to seek to add to its unregulated portfolio.”

Solar is indeed commercially viable. And we need the transmission grid that is designed to support it. There is vast solar potential, from California to New Jersey, Wisconsin to Hawaii, and in many states in between. To unlock that potential and support projects like the Topaz solar plant, we have to connect them to consumers.

Read more about how transmission helps grow domestic clean energy supplies.

transmission blue sky single

California Governor Marks the Completion of the First Phase of the Tehachapi Project

Photo Courtesy of the Office of the Governor, State of California

Governor Schwarzenegger spoke to mark the completion of the first phase of the 250-mile Tehachapi Renewable Transmission Project yesterday. He hailed the project, which will deliver up to 4,500 megawatts of renewable electricity to the Los Angeles metro area when completed in 2015, as the first transmission line in California built for the express purpose of unlocking renewable wind, solar, and geothermal resources. He also praised the line as a boost to California’s economy, bringing in $30 billion in investment and a large share of green venture capital.

The event also included remarks from transmission developer Edison International CEO Ted Craver. Craver announced plans to spend $1 billion per year over the next five years on new and ongoing transmission projects – including the 250-mile Tehachapi line in Southern California. He cited a new financing model approved by state and FERC regulators as a key reason his company could make the commitment to transmission development.

The “Tehachapi” cost allocation model allows developers to recover construction costs up front for transmission lines that are deemed by the California ISO – the operator of the grid servicing most of southern California – to have “system benefits.” Going forward, generators using the line would pay a pro rata share of the facility’s cost.

A video and full transcript of the event can be found here. http://gov.ca.gov/speech/15072