Federal regulator fights for wind power
Wind power has a powerful new ally in the shape of Jon Wellinghoff, the new chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Just three months after his appointment, Wellinghoff told a US Energy Association forum that base load power "is going to become an anachronism" and that new nuclear or coal plants may not ever be needed again in the United States. Instead, vast amounts of new renewable energy should come online, including thousands of gigawatts of wind, he said in April.
Integration of a variable supply of electricity, such as from wind plant, will not be more of a problem than dealing with variable demand, provided that balancing areas are large enough; the transmission grid is strong and well connected, and that modern power system control technology is fully utilised for highly flexible balancing of supply and demand.
Adopting the current catch-all term for a modern power system, Wellinghoff refers to this collection of improvements as a "smart grid," a term that primarily means energy efficiency and demand response technologies that both reduce energy losses and encourage end users to demand electricity in ways that work actively with the ebb and flow of energy resources.
"People talk about, oh, we need base load. It's like people saying we need more computing power, we need mainframes. We don't need mainframes, we have distributed computing," Wellinghoff outlined his thinking at the American wind industry's annual trade show in Chicago last month. "I think they need to look at what base load really means. What we're looking at is the most economical loading order. The most economical loading order would be wind. You do have to shape it and make sure you have adequate power available to meet all the needs."
Gigawatts of wind
The first step to putting wind first in the merit order for dispatch begins with energy efficiency, which can reduce electricity demand by as much as 40%, says Wellinghoff. "I didn't even realise until I got to FERC how much ability we have to save energy in this country by making the transmission system more efficient." He also believes that more on-site generation from solar photovoltaics, combined heat and power, and small natural gas plants can reduce demand variability on the central system, making it possible to integrate more technologies that supply variable volumes of electricity. In this way, it would be possible to manage "thousands of gigawatts of wind" and solar in the US and hundreds of gigawatts of geothermal, biomass and hydrokinetic technologies, he says.
"We have the potential in this country, we just have to go out and get it, and we have the potential also to operate the system so power is dependable and reliable and provided from green sources as long as we ensure we're using it as efficiently as possible," says Wellinghoff.
FERC regulates power system management across the US, including interstate transmission, the wholesale power markets, and licensing of hydropower projects. But federal laws restrict its ability in many cases to trump state decisions on what system improvements should be introduced where and when. FERC has battled for years for a better national market structure but has failed to win federal government support for initiatives such as its Standard Market Design six years ago.
FERC's difficulties were underlined in February, when the US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the agency permitting approval over interstate transmission lines when states are seen to be acting too slowly to expand wires or are outright against it. "We're looking into that and we very well may appeal," says Wellinghoff.
A variety of bills are moving forward in Congress to grant FERC the power Wellinghoff says the agency needs over states in order to get needed transmission lines for renewables. He says such a law should continue to recognise state interests and that all deference needs to be given to states and regions to solve the transmission problems in their own areas. But if it does not get resolved, "there has to be some ultimate backstop to siting and cost allocation. At some point in time there has to be someone to make the final decision that's not being made on a state or regional basis," Wellinghoff says.