August 27, 2008

The Energy Challenge

Wind Energy Bumps Into Power Grid's Limits


When the builders of the Maple Ridge Wind farm spent $320 million to 
put nearly 200 wind turbines in upstate New York, the idea was to get 
paid for producing electricity. But at times, regional electric lines 
have been so congested that Maple Ridge has been forced to shut down 
even with a brisk wind blowing.

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 

While the United States today gets barely 1 percent of its 
electricity from wind turbines, many experts are starting to think 
that figure could hit 20 percent.

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 nation's 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 Wyoming, a 
turbine could make 50 percent more electricity than the identical 
model built in New York or Texas.

"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.

Politicians in Washington have long known about the grid's 
limitations but have made scant headway in solving them. They are 
reluctant to trample the prerogatives of state governments, which 
have traditionally exercised authority over the grid and have little 
incentive to push improvements that would benefit neighboring states.

In Texas, T. Boone Pickens, the oilman building the world's largest 
wind farm, plans to tackle the grid problem by using a right of way 
he is developing for water pipelines for a 250-mile transmission line 
from the Panhandle to the Dallas market. He has testified in Congress 
that Texas policy is especially favorable for such a project and that 
other wind developers cannot be expected to match his efforts.

"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 New York City with turbines. Companies are even 
reviving ideas of storing wind-generated energy using compressed air 
or spinning flywheels.

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 

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 Middle Atlantic 
States and one in the Southwest, as national priorities where it 
might do so; 14 United States senators then signed a letter saying 
the department was being too aggressive.

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.

Texas and California have recently made some progress in building 
transmission lines for wind power, but nationally, the problem seems 
likely to get worse. Today, New York State has about 1,500 megawatts 
of wind capacity. A megawatt is an instantaneous measure of power. A 
large Wal-Mart draws about one megawatt. The state is planning for an 
additional 8,000 megawatts of capacity.

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 Long Island, New York State has not built a 
major new power line in 20 years.

A handful of states like California that have set aggressive goals 
for renewable energy are being forced to deal with the issue, since 
the goals cannot be met without additional power lines.

But Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico and a former energy 
secretary under President Bill Clinton, contends that these piecemeal 
efforts are not enough to tap the nation's potential for renewable 

Wind advocates say that just two of the windiest states, North Dakota 
and South Dakota, could in principle generate half the nation's 
electricity from turbines. But the way the national grid is 
configured, half the country would have to move to the Dakotas in 
order to use the power.

"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."