Monday, September 13, 2010

Power Generations Runs Into Transmission Troubles

It is a difficult enough task to site new power generating facilities, even wind and solar powered facilities. But that isn't even half the task.

There's the problem of transmitting that power to where it is needed.

Wind and solar powered facilities are often quite far from where the power is consumed, and that requires high power transmission lines. Opposition to siting those power lines means that there are days when you can have power to transmit but can't because of insufficient capacity in the network.

It's a situation that must change, and soon.
President Barack Obama has made the promotion of renewables central to his administration. A 2008 Department of Energy study found that the United States could, in theory, get 20 percent of its electricity from wind by 2030. Right now, however, that figure is less than 2 percent nationally. In Denmark, by contrast, about 20 percent of the electricity supply comes from wind.

In Texas, wind accounts for 6 percent of the electricity on the grid. But after a decade of rampant growth, wind is running into a significant constraint: There are too few transmission lines to carry the power. The wind turbines have mostly gone up in the western part of the state — hundreds of miles from the big cities in central and eastern Texas that need the power. The result is that on windy days, some turbines must shut down because there are not enough wires to transport the electricity they produce.

Lack of transmission is a national problem, especially for wind, which is often generated far from population centers. “The ability to site and build transmission is emerging as one of the highest risks facing the electric industry over the next 10 years,” according to a report last year from the North American Electric Reliability Corp., an industry group that sets operating standards for the grid.

Europe, similarly concerned, is hoping to build transmission lines under the North Sea, which would provide new ways to move electricity generated by offshore wind turbines and other renewable energy sources.

In Texas, state officials have moved aggressively to remedy the transmission deficiency. In 2008 regulators approved a $5 billion network of wires, which ultimately will stretch more than 2,300 miles, or 3,700 kilometers, around the state. The regulators are determining, one by one, exactly where each line will go. Construction on the first of the lines should start this autumn.

Unlike other states, Texas has a stand-alone power grid, making it easier to plan and site transmission lines. That effort has brought praise from renewable-energy advocates around the United States. The Texas process helped inspire a similar initiative in California, said V. John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, which is based in California. Mr. White said efforts there focused on supporting solar and geothermal power, as well as wind, and included more input from environmentalists.

But even in Texas — a state long accustomed to oil pipelines and other energy infrastructure — opposition to the transmission lines is mounting. Many landowners do not want to surrender their land to high-voltage power lines, even though they would be paid to do so. “The meters on the attorneys are running,” said Robert Weatherford, the president of Save Our Scenic Hill Country Environment, one of several groups fighting to keep two proposed power lines out of a scenic patch of central Texas, with partial success so far.

Besides transmission, Texas is grappling with other wind-related issues. One is cost. Long-term wholesale contracts for Texas wind power remain about twice as costly as generation from coal and nuclear plants, according to Michael E. Webber, the associate director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas in Austin.
Texas is in a better position than most states because the state's transmission network is stand-alone, and even here the situation is extremely tough. The problems are magnified in places like the New York metro area because of population density, energy demands, and a lack of power generating capacity within the region.

NIMBY is preventing the construction of power lines, and some groups contend that the power lines would simply allow cheaper coal and oil plants to power needs locally rather than enable the alternative energy projects proposed within New Jersey. That argument falls flat when one views the opposition to siting any new power generating facilities - even offshore wind power projects if they're too close to shore (and therefore increase the costs for those projects even more).

New Jersey is also considering using brownfields as solar power generating facilities. That's an idea that makes tremendous sense, especially for landfills that have limited alternative uses. The problem for those facilities is hooking them up to an overburdened grid to ensure that the power flows to where it is needed.

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