United States

United States

Industry counters campaign of fear -- New York Times stirs up trouble

Wind got caught in the cross fire last month when the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) chose to leverage the current popular support for home-grown green energy to argue once more for much needed improvements to the country's aging electricity transmission system. Acceleration of renewables, said NERC, must go hand in hand with transmission upgrades to maintain reliable electricity supplies.

Its statement of the obvious, however, sparked alarming headlines throughout the US media, warning that renewables such as wind and solar would increase the likelihood of power blackouts and damage electric grid reliability, with the New York Times in particular running a prominent article.

"We think there's a real concern this could be misinterpreted, says Michael Goggin of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). "Nowhere in the [NERC] report did it say anything about wind or solar causing blackouts." What NERC warns is that if steps are not taken to modernise the grid, integration of large amounts of renewables will not be possible, says Goggin. "It wasn't saying that we're going to have blackouts. Obviously there are procedures in place that make sure you're not even going to create the potential for blackouts."

NERC's report, Electric Industry Concerns on Reliability Impacts of Climate Change Initiatives, looks at what is needed in the way of transmission and distribution grid improvements to support higher penetration of renewables and how new policies, such as a carbon cap and trade program, will effect power system operation if they put major curtailments on fossil fuel plants.

Hard truths

Some hard truths about needed transmission wires for wind are repeated by NERC. "With the exception of Texas, less than seven percent of the United States' population inhabits the top ten states for wind potential," says Michael Heyeck, a vice president of American Electric Power (AEP), in the report.

AEP has been especially vocal among large owners of generation and transmission in North America, insisting that a new backbone of high voltage transmission lines, such as a new interstate highway system of wires, is necessary to accommodate all the wind power and other renewables potential in the US. Many of the resource plans under consideration to reduce carbon emissions involve transfers of wind power from the rural Midwest to far away load centres. As national or international targets are considered, the need for broader planning mechanisms becomes self-evident, says NERC.

Beyond building new lines, NERC encourages innovative ways to improve the electricity grid through the use of "smart grid" technologies, such as voltage regulation, dynamic reactive power capabilities and demand-side improvements in energy efficiency. Combined, use of these management techniques will allow for the accommodation of large proportions of wind power in power supplies without reducing reliability.

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