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Applying big vision to transmission deficit

Wind can only provide 20% of America's electricity by 2020 if transmission lines are built to take the power to the customer. That will require federal government oversight of a new national transmission network, according to speakers at the AWEA conference last month

Applying big vision to transmission deficit

A new backbone of high voltage transmission cables stretching the length and breadth of America is the solution proposed by utility American Electric Power (AEP) to exploiting the full potential of the national wind resource. And it would cost no more than $60 billion, a figure the US wind lobby says is nothing compared to the value of delivering that kind of clean energy to consumers. The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) selected the energy industry giant to visualise what the US transmission system might look like with 20% of electricity coming from wind energy. Critical to such aspirations is a sober look at what is required of the US electrical transmission grid to accommodate such capacity -- measured by AEP as around 350 gigawatts of nameplate wind installation.

AEP's Lisa Barton presented what she stressed was only a conceptual model at AWEA's annual conference last month, held in Los Angeles. "We wanted to roll up our sleeves and look at how we can think outside the box with respect to transmission development and we decided it really needed to be part of a national and robust interstate transmission system," she said. The result of AEP's study is an entirely new 19,000 mile extra high voltage (EHV) AC transmission lines rated at 765 kV.

At the conference, the plan was compared to the Eisenhower interstate freeway system for vehicles that criss-crosses the country. And like its concrete brethren, the EHV network would greatly reduce traffic on the underlying system -- in this case, the current transmission system, which AEP conceptualised with an entirely new transmission overlay instead of the piecemeal upgrades that are happening today, albeit slowly.

Barton said the plan reflects purely an electrical scenario and not the blend of policy and politics that would be needed for its realisation. Theorizing what $60 billion would mean across electricity ratepayer bills is nearly impossible, Barton said after her presentation, due to the complexities of the electricity markets. Reality today is that the US grid is balkanized between various vertically integrated utilities and regional transmission organisations -- all with their own pricing schemes.

Any top-down plan such as the AEP proposal would require significant co-ordination among the players, Baton said. Determining who should pay for the assets would be a "very significant challenge." Rob Gramlich, AWEA's top transmission expert, put it this way: "I hope the 20% wind vision is not so grand it makes us all despair at the monumental challenge."

Harsh realities

Don Furman of PPM Energy said that in order to meet the 20% wind vision endorsed by AWEA, it will require not only a new transmission system, but a new business model and new regulatory model. "It's just not going to happen. It's my personal view that this is a limiting factor to get to any kind of number anywhere near twenty percent," Furman said. A top down, national approach is what is needed said John Calaway from specialist wind project investor Babcock & Brown. "If we don't do that, and don't work on the balkanization of the different systems, we're going to grind to a screeching halt pretty quickly and not reach the twenty per cent goal. We can do it, but it's going to have to be at the national policy level," he said.

Truck drivers

Panellists noted that efforts on the national front have languished, the US Department of Energy's controversial National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors being a prime example. "It sounded good and was exciting but nothing has transpired except for the emergency projects," said Calaway, referring to the DOE's draft designations for the transmission corridors, which did not include areas the wind industry had lobbied for (Windpower Monthly, June 2007). "To build up to this scale is like asking truck drivers to build highways. We need to educate our leadership in Washington about where the resources are and the value," said Calaway.

Today the industry is taking solace in the various regional efforts to boost transmission capacity, such as the Competitive Renewable Energy Zones process in Texas. AWEA's Swisher would like to see the Texas model, in which new transmission is proposed specifically with wind power in focus and generators are invited to compete for access to it, applied to states throughout the country.

Another successful model is being operated by Southern California Edison (SCE), which serves 13 million people. It is breaking new ground with a $1.8 billion transmission expansion to unlock over 4500 MW of wind potential in the existing Tehachapi wind resource area. All that is needed is a transmission line to get the power out and SCE is making that happen.

SCE's Jorge Chacon recalled his first wind conference in 2000 in Palm Springs, where there were no conference sessions dedicated specifically to utility issues. They were added in 2005, which he called a particularly good thing. "In looking at what it takes to grow the wind industry, you can have all the financing in place, all the manufacturing in place, all the wind industry pushing forward, but if you don't have transmission providers like Southern California Edison, along with state and federal policy makers, [wind] doesn't go anywhere," said Chacon.

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