United States

United States

Comment: Just do it

The consequence of bringing a record 8300 MW of wind power online in the United States last year is that most of the available capacity on the country's creaking electricity transmission grid is now in use or spoken for.

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As a result, more than 300 GW of wind projects risk going nowhere. Flexible interpretation of connection rules is allowing some wind farms to still hook up to the wires in some areas, but the pickings are getting distinctly lean. It is a problem that cannot be solved easily, quickly or cheaply.

The good news is that efforts at building out the grid network are moving forward up and down the country. Sixteen projects for new wires that wind power stations can hook up to are either in construction or very likely to be built between now and 2013 (pages 53-58). Optimistically, it could be the blueprint for where the next 36 GW of wind in the US gets built, with Texas a clear front runner.

The new lines have not been an easy sell. Nobody wants electricity transmission wires in their backyard and the risk of building them in the wrong place, with no future customers to pay the bill, makes drumming up the needed investment a difficult job. For the most part, the projects now progressing have taken a thoughtful partnership between wind developers, utilities, regulators and the public. The lesson is that the best way to get transmission lines built is to get credit-worthy wind farm developers to make serious financial commitments to using a proposed line. Public support is equally important - not just to sign off on local impacts of transmission lines, but because it is the ratepayers who ultimately pay the bill.

In Texas and the broader Midwest, where serious effort has been applied to solving the problem of where to locate the wires and how to pay for them, wind has flourished in recent years, in stark contrast to California where weak-kneed regulation of the wires process has stopped development in its tracks. The wind-friendly wires projects moving forward show that transmission development for a renewable energy future will involve multiple states acting co-operatively, with flexibility and with a touch of ingenuity.

If the states falter in this task, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) may well be given the ultimate control over transmission upgrades it has long asked for. The American Congress is in no mood to see its pro-renewables policies founder on the rock of transmission. Lack of capacity for new generation on the country's seriously deficient electricity network is by far the biggest barrier facing wind in America right now. FERC can fix that, given the necessary authority.

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