US transmission planning 'needs to get beyond parochial interests'

Experts bemoan lack of planning between regions and long lead times for US transmission rollout, but disagree on solutions

The 345kV Western Spirit transmission line will carry power from 800MW of wind in New Mexico (pic credit: Pattern Energy)

Siting and cost allocation remain the thorniest issues when building transmission to transport electricity from renewable energy projects, panellists agreed during a session at the American Clean Power Association's Cleanpower 2021 conference in Salt Lake City.

Hunter Armistead, chief development officer at Pattern Energy, a merchant developer of projects including transmission, noted that transmission takes a great deal of time to site, develop and construct. 

Just this week, Pattern and the New Mexico Renewable Energy Transmission Authority announced that the $1.8 billion Western Spirit transmission line became fully operational and is being sold to the utility PNM. However, it took ten years to get off the ground, he said. It will connect more than 800MW of new wind power to the existing New Mexico grid.

Meanwhile, Pattern’s SunZia project has taken 14-15 years to develop, he said. The high-voltage direct current (HVDC) Southern Cross bidirectional line, to connect Texas and the south-east, has also taken some 12-13 years, he said. It has been delayed since former president Barack Obama’s 2014 clean power plan, which aimed to cut the electric sector's carbon pollution by 32% nationally, was stymied by opponents. 

Siting is our biggest challenge, he said. The single most important issue is not to be held up by a single land owner. It is “crazy critical” to be able to condemn land, though Pattern did not have to do so with SunZia, he said. 

“The world is changing and we have to plan differently,” he continued. Regions should be expanded, such as California’s Caiso becoming a larger western regional transmission operator (RTO). “There’s coordination but no planning between regions,” he said, an opinion that was echoed by others on the panel. 

Andrew French of the Kansas Corporation Commission, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (Ferc)’s current federal-state joint task force on transmission policy, said of what is needed: “We need courage and consensus on the part of policymakers.” The task force had its first meeting in November and is expected to continue meeting for about three years.  

He noted that his region has vast renewable energy resources but not much load capacity. Without enough transmission, clean energy becomes trapped in the Kansas region even when there are other regions that need such a low-cost product, he said. 

French also noted that generation projects cost some three to four times that of transmission projects, and that transmission is an enabler for clean power deployment. US transmission planning needs to get beyond parochial interests, especially where one utility does not want to contribute to a project that overly benefits another, he said.

Derek Bandera, executive director of the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (Miso) RTO, cautioned that grid-enhancing technologies can be an argument not to move forward. “We certainly do not want these new technologies to distract from what is needed,” he said. 

His words may be controversial. A study by the Brattle Group released in February 2021 for the US-based Watt Coalition found that three AI-backed technologies— dynamic line ratings, advanced power flow control and topology optimisation— could enable Kansas and Oklahoma to integrate 5.5GW of wind and solar generation currently in interconnection queues by 2025. This is more than double the capacity development capacity without the technologies and which would otherwise need to wait for more and expensive transmission capacity to be built.

Elizabeth Salerno, lead for transmission and technology initiatives at Ferc, questioned whether the federal body should require inter-regional planning, rather than just coordination. She noted that the agency’s Order 1000, issued in July 2011 to expand transmission to help accommodate the expanding renewable sector, has not worked as planned. “We have not seen the regional solutions we thought we’d see,” she said. 

The issue of inter-regional transmission is accepted as vital to deploying large enough quantities of renewable energy to reach net zero. Power transmission capacity may need to increase by 90% by 2050, the US Department of Energy has predicted. 

According to the Ready to Go report by Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, advancing 22 identified high-voltage transmission projects would enable a 50% increase in US renewable energy output, trigger $33 billion in investment and create around 600,000 new jobs.