Last year was good for the wind industry as it added almost 40% more capacity. That’s 9,000 more MW and a remarkable feat. But don’t look for a repeat this year or the next unless legislation somehow speeds the painfully slow expansion and improvements to the transmission grid. It soon won’t matter how many turbines get installed because their power will have no way to get where it’s needed.
Expanding and shoring up the infrastructure is absolutely essential against the background of projections saying the nation will need some 50% more power by 2050. And updating the grid is not as simple as erecting towers and stringing high-power lines. Right-of-ways to reach new wind plants will pass through many communities and each deserves a say in the matter.
The grid-as-a-bottleneck problem has been brewing for some time. The most widely reported red flag was raised by T. Boone’s Mesa Power Group. A few years ago, the renewable energy company had ordered 667 wind turbines for a planned 1,000-MW wind farm in the Texas panhandle, but lack of transmission lines switched the project off. Without new lines, there is no way to get power to customers in Austin, Dallas, or Houston. And without an updated grid, kiss goodbye the Renewable Electricity Standard’s goal of 20% renewable energy by 2020.
A 2005 DOE report noted that some 70% of the 164,000 miles of U.S. transmission lines are at least 25 years old. Also, if lines are to stretch hundreds of miles, it’s vital that they work at high voltages to minimize losses. Yet there are few miles of the more-efficient 765-kV lines in the U.S, and probably only a few hundred miles of 345-kV lines, a 1950s capability.
The U.S. isn’t alone with this problem. China’s wind-power capacity hit 1.2 GW in 2005 and a whopping 12.2 GW just three years later. But according to one report, about 30% of the capacity sits idle and aging because there is no connection to the country’s transmission grid.
On the upside, if wind-plant owners can provide abundant low-cost electricity in their vicinity, new companies that rely on cheap energy might be encouraged to set up shop nearby. One plan, for instance, is to use the Midwest’s abundant wind power to make anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer, and with process tweaks, possibly an auto fuel.
On the downside, power outages and loss of power quality cost the economy from $25 billion to $185 billion annually, according to the DOE. Economic consultants at the Brattle Group predict that the electricity industry will need to pour almost $300 billion into the transmission grid over the next 20 years to meet increased demands for energy and the production capacity to meet it.
Who will pay for the upgrade? We all will in one way or another. But if demand outstrips generating capacity, brownouts on the scale of the Northeast blackout of 2003 could be frequently recurring events. WPE
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