Wind Energy Bumps Into Power Grid's Limits
The New York Times,
When the builders of the Maple Ridge Wind farm spent $320 million to put nearly 200 wind turbines in upstate
That is a symptom of a broad national problem. Expansive dreams about renewable energy, like Al Gore's hope of replacing all fossil fuels in a decade, are bumping up against the reality of a power grid that cannot handle the new demands.
The dirty secret of clean energy is that while generating it is getting easier, moving it to market is not.
The grid today, according to experts, is a system conceived 100 years ago to let utilities prop each other up, reducing blackouts and sharing power in small regions. It resembles a network of streets, avenues and country roads.
We need an interstate transmission superhighway system, said Suedeen G. Kelly, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Achieving that would require moving large amounts of power over long distances, from the windy, lightly populated plains in the middle of the country to the coasts where many people live. Builders are also contemplating immense solar-power stations in the nations deserts that would pose the same transmission problems.
The grid's limitations are putting a damper on such projects already. Gabriel Alonso, chief development officer of Horizon Wind Energy, the company that operates Maple Ridge, said that in parts of
"The windiest sites have not been built, because there is no way to move that electricity from there to the load centers," he said.
The basic problem is that many transmission lines, and the connections between them, are simply too small for the amount of power companies would like to squeeze through them. The difficulty is most acute for long-distance transmission, but shows up at times even over distances of a few hundred miles.
Transmission lines carrying power away from the Maple Ridge farm, near Lowville, N.Y., have sometimes become so congested that the company's only choice is to shut down -- or pay fees for the privilege of continuing to pump power into the lines.
"If you want to do it on a national scale, where the transmission line distances will be much longer, and utility regulations are different, Congress must act," he said on Capitol Hill.
Enthusiasm for wind energy is running at fever pitch these days, with bold plans on the drawing boards, like Mayor Michael Bloomberg's notion of dotting
Yet experts say that without a solution to the grid problem, effective use of wind power on a wide scale is likely to remain a dream.
The power grid is balkanized, with about 200,000 miles of power lines divided among 500 owners. Big transmission upgrades often involve multiple companies, many state governments and numerous permits.
Every addition to the grid provokes fights with property owners.
These barriers mean that electrical generation is growing four times faster than transmission, according to federal figures.
In a 2005 energy law, Congress gave the Energy Department the authority to step in to approve transmission if states refused to act. The department designated two areas, one in the
Energy Department leaders say that, however understandable the local concerns, they are getting in the way. "Modernizing the electric infrastructure is an urgent national problem, and one we all share," said Kevin M. Kolevar, assistant secretary for electricity delivery and energy reliability, in a speech last year.
Unlike answers to many of the nation's energy problems, improvements to the grid would require no new technology. An Energy Department plan to source 20 percent of the nation's electricity from wind calls for a high-voltage backbone spanning the country that would be similar to 2,100 miles of lines already operated by a company called American Electric Power.
The cost would be high, $60 billion or more, but in theory could be spread across many years and tens of millions of electrical customers. However, in most states, rules used by public service commissions to evaluate transmission investments discourage multistate projects of this sort. In some states with low electric rates, elected officials fear that new lines will simply export their cheap power and drive rates up.
Without a clear way of recovering the costs and earning a profit, and with little leadership on the issue from the federal government, no company or organization has offered to fight the political battles necessary to get such a transmission backbone built.
But those turbines will need to go in remote, windy areas that are far off the beaten path, electrically speaking, and it is not clear enough transmission capacity will be developed. Save for two underwater connections to
A handful of states like
But Bill Richardson, the governor of
Wind advocates say that just two of the windiest states,
"We still have a third-world grid," Mr. Richardson said, repeating a comment he has made several times. "With the federal government not investing, not setting good regulatory mechanisms, and basically taking a back seat on everything except drilling and fossil fuels, the grid has not been modernized, especially for wind energy."