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One failure and one success story -- Attacking grid bottlenecks

Two recent attempts at streamlining the management of electricity transmission grids on opposite sides of the United States have met with distinctly different fates -- and both promise to have some impact on wind power development.

In the Pacific Northwest, ten years of planning and millions of dollars aimed at simplifying the grid's accessibility and efficiency got voted down last month as a group of investor-owned utilities rejected a proposal called Grid West.

"It's very disappointing to us after the best minds in the utility business worked for so long to come up with a proposal to solve problems," says Dave Kvamme of PacifiCorp. "It's no secret that there are many bottlenecks in the region's transmission system -- and that affects where utilities and other developers can site new generation, including wind," he says. "One of the promises of Grid West was that it was going to identify where new developments could be sited for easy access to the grid."

While the public interest is in getting the lowest-cost energy from any willing seller to any willing buyer, the process is multi-dimensional and rife with complications. "If you have to pass through three utility systems to get electricity from California to Wyoming, a point comes where you ruin the value of the transaction," Kvamme says. "You can buy the wind power but you still have to book the transmission pathways. And when you have to deal with several entities it can increase the costs and the difficulties."

Grid West would have set up an oversight board independent of buyers and sellers where no one would be able to unduly influence the market. "There's nothing simple about the subject," Kvamme says. "It's difficult for people outside the industry to understand the implications. In reality, the grid is the most complicated part of the system that brings electricity to consumers from far away places."

The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), a federal entity that controls much of the transmission assets in the Pacific Northwest, voted not to support Grid West, largely out of concern that the plan might affect its preferential rates to public utilities without delivering new efficiencies. "In the end, I think it was BPA reacting to pressure from their customers," Kvamme says.

Success in the east

Meanwhile, on the eastern side of the country, ReliabilityFirst will coordinate portions of the network currently covered by the East Central Area Reliability Council, Mid-America Interconnected Network and the Mid-Atlantic Area Council.

ReliabilityFirst was approved by the North American Electric Reliability Council and will begin full operations on January 1. It will monitor compliance to technical standards for electric companies, independent power producers, load entities, electric transmission companies and others who contribute to or manage power on the electric grid.

"What's important to any supplier in the marketplace, wind or otherwise, is that a uniform set of requirements will exist over a large area," says Roberta Brown of ReliabilityFirst.

The organisation's impact on the wind industry may be more theoretical than practical, at least at the outset. "There's a big difference between having a single set of rules and a variety of rules," Brown adds. "The market will still be the driver as to whether something gets built or not. But having one set of rules makes it easier for any company contemplating a wind development to see things clearly and make decisions based on that. And the wider the region, the easier it is for people to work together."

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