These problems may now be the biggest obstacle to wider use of renewable energy, which otherwise looks increasingly viable. Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO, have concluded that there’s no technical or economic reason why the United States couldn’t get 20 percent of its electricity from wind turbines by 2030. The researchers calculate, however, that reaching this goal would require a $60 billion investment in 12,650 miles of new transmission lines to plug wind farms into the grid and help balance their output with that of other electricity sources and with consumer demand. The inadequate grid infrastructure “is by far the number one issue with regard to expanding wind,” says Steve Specker, president of the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in Palo Alto, CA, the industry’s research facility. “It’s already starting to restrict some of the potential growth of wind in some parts of the West.”
The Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator, which manages the grid in a region covering portions of 15 states from Pennsylvania to Montana, has received hundreds of applications for grid connections from would-be energy developers whose proposed wind projects would collectively generate 67,000 megawatts of power. That’s more than 14 times as much wind power as the region produces now, and much more than it could consume on its own; it would represent about 6 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption. But the existing transmission system doesn’t have the capacity to get that much electricity to the parts of the country that need it. In many of the states in the region, there’s no particular urgency to move things along, since each has all the power it needs. So most of the applications for grid connections are simply waiting in line, some stymied by the lack of infrastructure and others by bureaucratic and regulatory delays.
Lisa Daniels, for example, waited three years for a grid connection for a planned development of 9 to 12 turbines on her land in Kenyon, MN, 60 miles south of Minneapolis. The installation would be capable of producing 18 megawatts of power. Its site–only a mile and a half from a substation–is “bulldozer ready,” says Daniels, who is also executive director of a regional nonprofit that aims to encourage local wind projects. “The system should be plug-and-play, but it’s not,” she says.
Utilities, however, are reluctant to build new transmission capacity until they know that the power output of remote wind and solar farms will justify it. At the same time, renewable-energy investors are reluctant to build new wind or solar farms until they know they can get their power to market. Most often, they choose to wait for new transmission capacity before bothering to make proposals, says Suedeen Kelly, a FERC commissioner. “It is a chicken-and-egg type of thing,” she says.
The windowless laboratory at GE Global Research in Niskayuna, NY, is stocked with kitchen appliances and lined with wall screens like those in the control centers for an electrical grid. In the lab, Juan de Bedout, manager of the Electric Power and Propulsion Systems Laboratory, describes how a “smart grid” could help make renewables practical. Imagine, he says, that the wind speed suddenly drops at a wind farm, or that a cloud bank moves over a photovoltaic installation. Existing transmission control systems–like those at Vattenfall–will detect the drop in supply and order increases in power production from other sources, particularly natural-gas plants, which can be fired up quickly.
But in a smart grid, the controller could send a message down to a regional distribution system, seeking a reduction in demand. Instantly, a signal would go out to meters in the homes or offices of customers who had agreed, in exchange for rate reductions, to let the utility rig some of their appliances to cut power consumption during supply drop-offs. Within seconds, electric water heaters would shut off for a few minutes, and electronic thermostats would be automatically adjusted by two or three degrees. There would be no need to power up the natural-gas plant.