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United States

Grand transmission plan disappoints -- Not much progress in California

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The process of identifying exactly where new transmission capacity is needed in California to take renewable energy to customers and how best to contract companies to provide it as cheaply as possible is coming in for tough wind industry criticism. "What the process should deliver is a transmission plan that increases access to any potentially competitive resource," says Nancy Rader of the California Wind Energy Association (CalWEA). What it should not do is "prejudge the competitive market, the environmental review process, all the real world stuff that determines what gets developed," she adds.

Rader's remarks are directed at California's Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative (RETI), now a little over a year old. Its job is to catalogue the size and location of all the state's renewable energy resources and identify where transmission wires are needed to unlock as much of the potential as possible. As in Texas, the process identifies competitive renewable energy zones (CREZ), where customers for transmission capacity are already lined up, and then invites companies to compete to provide the needed wires. The identification of the California CREZ was done by global engineering firm Black & Veach.


"Trying to do an A to Z analysis, including environmental review, to capital cost, to wind resource and quality trying to do it all for every renewable resource and technology in California is a daunting task and it's almost impossible to do right and to do well," says Rader. In broad terms, there is not enough weight given to the uncertainties involved in the calculations and the value ranking of various geographic zones, she says.

As examples she cites two areas in California, the first around Santa Barbara to the south and the second around Lassen in the north-east, that while ranked low as potential CREZ zones, are attracting strong interest from wind project developers. Acciona has a secured power purchase agreement and site control near Santa Barbara and others are active in Lassen. To Rader, this seems like a mismatch between the zones given value by the study and the zones that are being given value by the marketplace.

How the study measures wind's environmental impact also has yet to be sorted out. It tends to rank wind's impact based on the area of a project, which can be quite large, instead of weighing actual turbine footprints, which are about 3% on average of the land used for a project. "That's a major shortcoming that so unfairly treats wind and distorts the result of the study," she says.

Other shortcomings in CalWEA's view include assumptions around capacity factors for wind power, transmission costs, and a relatively low ranking for the potential of wind development in an area about 130 kilometres south of the US border in Baja, Mexico. Less than 10% of that area's potential could be developed, according to the RETI report. There are as much as 24,000 MW of wind resources at wind speeds of 7-8.8 m/s, according to Dariush Shirmohammadi, of Shir Consultants, who represents CalWEA in the RETI process. "We find it untenable to assume that less than 10% could be developed on an economically competitive basis."

Rader and other wind stakeholders in California are still deciding if they can get behind the report. "We'll have to balance the wins against the losses," says Rader. But at the moment the losses appear to outweigh what CalWEA had hoped would come from the state's grand vision for building transmission for renewables.

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