Wind energy’s biggest expansion hurdle is not a lack of supply or demand. Or even local wildlife.
It’s a matter of getting the energy from the turbine to the consumer.
American wind power development may have to be curtailed by as much as 15.5 percent in some areas without additional transmission lines and upgrades to existing infrastructure, according to a January report by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
If just four proposed transmission projects are built, wind power curtailment could be reduced by about half, cutting lost generating potential to less than 8 percent, the study found. Curtailment could be cut further if additional projects are developed, but those projects come with diminishing returns.
But additional transmission lines cannot simply go online overnight. The permitting processes vary from state to state and among the country’s eight regional transmission organizations.
WIND GENERATES 19 PERCENT
The Southwest Power Pool handles the energy grid and wholesale electric market for 550,000 square miles across 14 states. The regional transmission organization is based in Little Rock, Ark.
In February, the Southwest Power Pool became the first grid manager in North America to serve more than half its customers at one time with wind power, for a five-minute increment. Electricity generated from the wind accounts for up to 19 percent of its generating capacity, up from about 1 percent a decade ago.
The organization approved 13 transmission line upgrades in January as part of a 10-year planning portfolio. The new infrastructure will include electricity from renewable and nonrenewable resources and is in response to growing demand for power.
“It’s a Catch-22 for us,” Southwest Pool Power vice president Lanny Nickell said. “If we can slow down how many renewables are added, we can catch up. That’s the key question for us.”
‘ALWAYS FLOWING, ALWAYS MOVING’
Michigan-based ITC Holdings Corp. also is examining long-term planning options to accommodate infrastructure needs.
“I like to think of the planning process as like a river,” said Alan Myers, ITC holding director of regional planning. “It’s always flowing, always moving and not always noticeable by the public.”
ITC Holdings has 5.8 gigawatt-hours of wind-generated electricity running through its transmission lines in Kansas, Oklahoma, Michigan, Iowa and Minnesota. Each state runs on a different permitting timetable.
The Kansas Corp. Commission can take up to 120 days to issue a transmission siting permit. Some states do not require siting permits.
“A number of states have some sort of central process where you have to prove the need and show the route,” Myers said. “There’s pluses and minuses to both, and we’ve built lines in both types of states.”
Transmission lines should be properly vetted by regulators because the infrastructure will last for many years and it’s important that companies get it right, he said.
Although Southwest Power Pool’s pending transmission line upgrades are slated to address congestion in developmentally constrained areas such as southwest Missouri and West Texas, wind farm projects of all sizes are still feeling the short-term infrastructure pinch, prompting energy companies to plan their sites accordingly.
Corpus Christi, Texas-based Amshore US Wind is among the entities that work with Southwest Power Pool as one of the developers of Frontier Windpower Project. The 61-turbine wind farm is near Blackwell, Okla., and went online late last year.
The 200-megawatt site generates enough power for about 60,000 homes and was developed for a 22-year power purchase agreement with City Utilities of Springfield, Mo.
Amshore US Wind has wind farms in Iowa, southern Texas and northern Mexico and surface leases for 57,000 acres in Osage County, Okla. Amshore is conducting feasibility studies on an additional proposed wind farm site in Osage County.
ROOM ON THE LINE
Amshore vice president Jeff Neves wrote in an email that many local factors affect whether a project is economically feasible, including local willingness to participate and support clean domestic energy development, environmental impacts, wind resource and siting constraints.
Infrastructure is necessary to get electricity to the market, just as it’s required for oil and natural gas commodities.
“But the most important component is access to transmission, and transmission that has secure and substantial enough capacity and room on the line in order to support a utility-scale power project,” Neves wrote.
Southwest Power Pool spokesman Derek Wingfield said the 13 new transmission projects approved this year aren’t the ultimate solution to ending wind congestion in the Great Plains.
“We’re not done, but it’s an ongoing process as the grid evolves,” he said.
Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton is a freelance reporter. Sarah Terry-Cobo, a reporter for The Journal Record of Oklahoma City, a sister BridgeTower Media publication of Lehigh Valley Business, contributed to this report.