U.S. Wind Power Strangled By Antiquated Power Grid

By Matthew L. Wald, International Herald Tribune
27th August, 2008

The Maple Ridge Wind farm near Lowville, New York
The Maple Ridge Wind farm near Lowville, New York. It was forced to shut down when regional electric lines become congested. (Mike Groll/The Associated Press)
When the builders of the Maple Ridge Wind Farm spent $320 million to erect nearly 200 windmills 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 across small regions. It resembles a network of streets, avenues and country roads. "We need an interstate transmission superhighway system," said Sudeen Kelley, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which governs many interstate transmission projects.

While the United States now gets less than 1% of its electricity from wind turbines, many experts are starting to believe that figure could hit 20%. 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, the company that operates Maple Ridge, noted that in parts of Wyoming, a turbine could make 50 percent more electricity than an identical model installed 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 among 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.

The transmission lines carrying power away from the Maple Ridge farm, atop Tug Hill near Lowville, New York, have sometimes become so congested that the company's only choice was to shut down - or pay fees to the grid operator for the privilege of continuing to pump power into the lines.

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

Another problem is that the grid is balkanized, with about 200,000 miles, or 322,000 kilometers, of power lines divided among 500 owners. Big transmission upgrades often involve multiple companies, many state governments, and numerous permits. Construction costs are astronomical, and every addition to the grid provokes fights with property owners who do not want to look at a line of power pylons marching across the landscape.

These barriers mean that electrical generation is growing four times faster than transmission, according to U.S. government figures. In the last 20 years, according to the U.S. Energy Department, peak electrical demand is up more than 53 percent but the means to transmit that electricity have grown by only 12 percent. (The vulnerability of the grid became clear in August 2003, when trouble on a few power lines in Ohio precipitated a blackout that affected 50 million people in the Northeastern United States and Canada.)

In legislation passed in 2005, 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 U.S. senators then signed a letter saying the department was being too aggressive.

Energy Department officials say that, however understandable the local concerns, they are getting in the way of a vital priority.

"Viewed from a broad perspective, it is clear that modernizing the electric infrastructure is an urgent national problem, and one we all share," Kevin Kolevar, assistant secretary for electricity delivery and energy reliability, said in a speech last year.

Unlike many of the nation's energy problems, improvements to the grid would require no fancy new technology.

An Energy Department plan to get 20% of the nation's electricity from wind calls for a high-voltage backbone that would span the country. It would use technology similar to 2,100 miles of power lines, mostly in Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia and Indiana, that are 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 many millions of customers who would benefit from access to new power sources. However, in most states, rules used by public service commissions to evaluate transmission investments discourage multi-state projects of this sort. In some states with low electric rates, officials fear that new lines will simply export their cheap power and drive up prices.

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 poised to get worse. Today, New York State has about 1,500 megawatts of wind capacity. The state has windy areas that could handle far more turbines, and is planning for another 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 that enough transmission capacity will be developed to handle the power.

Save for two underwater connections to Long Island, the state has not built a major new power line in 20 years.

RETURN to Contents Page