Wires in the right places are vital to move energy from producers to consumers. While the importance of the grid is perhaps obvious, a change in the way we think about it might be the first step towards a truly renewable power system.
Wind power is often built far from urban areas where most of the energy will be consumed, demanding new or upgraded grid lines. Retooling the fabric of the grid for a renewable future is no small task. ENTSO-E, a network of European transmission operators, believes that up to 80% of all network upgrade or replacement projects in Europe in the next decade will be related to renewables integration. The nub of the problem is that in many places, the existing infrastructure was built long before privatisation, unbundling and some radical changes in the demands we place on it.
Shifting the paradigm of something as large and complex as a power grid creates some serious regulatory headaches. Developers of completed wind farms still waiting for connection in Brazil are all too familiar with what happens when transmission expansion falls out of step with turbine installation. Although the cost of the upgrades and replacements is modest - ENTSO-E estimates the cost per megawatt hour of grid projects of pan-European significance at about 1% of retail power prices - the fair and efficient allocation of the cost is tricky.
The risk that generation does not come forward to connect to pre-emptive transmission infrastructure, resulting in so-called stranded assets, is particularly thorny. Not to mention the challenge of balancing the benefits of new wires against the rights and concerns of those who share the landscape with them.
In addition to putting the right lines in the right places, the way networks are operated is evolving rapidly. Although it is widely accepted by those in the know that more wind is generally better for system security than less, the importance of forecasting wind generation and the resulting flows of energy across large areas becomes more acute as penetration increases.
The idea that demand for connection from developers will encourage network companies to build new lines where they are needed, at the optimal rate, is seductive. But there are two reasons to be sceptical of this logic.
First, there is the issue of pace. A major objective of wind deployment is to reduce the carbon intensity of the grid or, more accurately, to limit the cumulative amount of carbon emitted by power generation. This urgency should prompt us to value a tonne of carbon saved now more highly than a tonne of carbon saved in the future. Left entirely to the market, the transmission system will change at a glacial rate, meaning that wind is installed more slowly, allowing more carbon to be emitted. Governments that want to see turbine production facilities on their turf also have an interest in making sure that manufacturers are confident enough in future installation rates to build factories.
Secondly, the geographic scope of power transmission means that lines are increasingly likely to cross market boundaries and international frontiers, something that will need collaboration between regulators. It has long been recognised that an interconnected grid and market system that allows surplus power generated in one region to be consumed in another improves the resilience of electricity supply for everyone.
The rate and scale of action needed demands leadership from regulators and government. There is already some regulatory innovation in the grid sphere unlocking wind deployment. The UK's "connect and manage" response to grid constraints that authorises generators to be connected years ahead of completion of major upgrades has advanced the connection of gigawatts of capacity, while the CREZ transmission programme in Texas promises to alleviate congestion and avoid curtailments. There are also a host of technical improvements that could have a much bigger positive impact with the right regulatory impetus. These include reactive power and voltage control by wind turbines and more dynamic network management.
"Getting the grid right" involves a dizzying range of stakeholders and agendas, technologies and trade-offs. It is not certain that a perfect outcome is achievable on any timescale. But something we can be sure of is that the futures of wind power and the grid are inextricably linked. It is possible that by striving for an ideal grid solution we are allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good. In light of the urgency of the situation in which we find ourselves, perhaps it's time we agreed that good enough will have to do.
Oscar Fitch-Roy is a senior policy consultant at renewables consultancy GL Garrad Hassan's strategy and policy unit