The Generation and the Transmission

Texas recently hit a milestone: as reported in the New York Times on their “Green, Inc.” blog, early in the morning on March 5, 19% of the electricity in the ERCOT grid was wind-generated. The article, Setting Wind Power Records in Texas” goes on to describe how one of the greatest challenges associated with the developing wind power is ensuring access to the electric grid. While the absence of transmission is a constraint in many areas, Texas has been further out front than many areas in making sure we invest in the transmission lines to make greater wind development possible.

Having been in New York during the blackout in the summer of 2003, I can easily remember that the next few months featured many articles and exposes on the poor condition of much of our national electricity infrastructure. Following 9/11, more policymakers began to worry about the vulnerability of the grid as a national security matter. While the odds of a cascading blackout like in 2003 are incredibly low, such “black swan” events severely disrupt lives and economies.

Major Challenges: Growth, Deregulation, and Adding New Generation

The 2002 National Transmission Grid Study from the Department of Energy describes many of the present and future challenges for grid management. Largely built a century ago by vertically-integrated utilities, interconnection slowly grew in order to help transfer power during periods with heavy loads. (3)

One of the greatest challenges is the sheer growth in demand – DOE estimated in 2002 that peak summer demand and capacity would grow by almost twenty percent per year for the next ten years. (4) As grid operators have struggled to meet this growth and changing usage patterns, “bottlenecks” have grown, causing many more near-overloads and forcing the purchase of more expensive local sources, increasing the price of electricity for consumers. Deregulation brought many changes in the different businesses and actors directly involved in grid operations and management.

According to a study by Electric Transmission Texas, there are three additional challenges to incorporating wind power: the fact that both wind availability and load are variable and constantly changing; conditions in one part of the grid affect operations in other areas; and “[t]he power system has to be continuously prepared to withstand the sudden failure of any generator or transmission line.” (5)

The National Response

Investment in new transmission fell steadily from the 1970s to 2000, so that at the time of the DOE study, only 6 percent growth in the transmission system was expected, in contrast to the 20 percent growth in load. (7) The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) last year provided $11 billion for different transmission-related activities. Almost half of the funds went to the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability at the Department of Energy; the rest went to the federal Power Marketing Authorities such as ERCOT for modernizing the grid. Much of the focus is on “smart grid” technology to increase the flow of information between individual consumers and the grid. This month, an additional $100 million was made available for more transmission-related projects. Some ARRA funds to stimulate growth in the wind industry have gone to fund studies on how to incorporate large amounts of wind power in transmission; one of the grants came to UT.

Texas has been ahead of the national curve on dealing with the challenge of providing additional transmission for wind projects. The Public Utilities Commission approved a plan to add 18,500 MW of transmission lines to for wind power in ERCOT through the Competitive Renewable Energy Zone 2 (CREZ 2) in 2008. A year later, it awarded $5 billion in contracts to build the lines. However, in January, a Texas court delayed the project by siding with the City of Garland, who claims that they could construct the lines more cheaply than private contractors. Hopefully, this dispute can be resolved quickly – it can be difficult to secure funding for new renewable energy projects unless there are transmission lines in place or forthcoming.

As described in the DOE study, the grid is “an interstate highway system for wholesale electricity commerce.” (xi) Large-scale investment to improve the capacity and reliability of transmission can increase energy security, reduce the cost to consumers, and increase the return on investment in renewable energy sources and smaller-scale “distributed generation” facilities. But only if the investment is done well. Transmission lines are expensive; line-losses increase as electricity travels hundreds of miles from generation to distribution, and as a town in California learned the hard way last week, there are significant environmental and scenic consequences.  Short-sighted or uncoordinated efforts are missed opportunities.

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