New Transmission Required for More Wind and Solar

wind and solar capacity

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to our national goal of deploying more wind and solar energy is their incapacity to be physically transported to a power plant like coal or natural gas.  Because of this, the generating facility must be built wherever the wind or solar resource is located.  These sites are usually found in remote, low-population areas, such as the Great Plains or the desert Southwest.

The U.S. therefore needs tens of billions of dollars invested in new high-voltage (≥144 Kilovolts), long-distance power lines to bring more clean energy into the system.  For example, to meet the aggressive goal of 35% wind power by 2050 put forth in the U.S.  Department of Energy’s (DOE) 2015 Wind Vision study, the country would need to build 33,000 miles of new transmission lines at a cost of $60 billion. For comparison, we now have about 450,000 miles, and the investor owned-electricity companies spend about $20 billion each year on transmission construction.  New overhead transmission lines can cost over $1 million per mile.

Supportive policies would help drive the nation’s nearly $40 billion market for wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources.  It’s the classic “chicken-and-egg” dilemma for clean energy and transmission.  Today, developers can build wind and solar farms much easier and faster than new transmission.  The typical wind or solar project needs thousands of acres but the parcels of land are easier to combine than the rights of way and siting for interstate transmission.  More coordinated generation and transmission planning would provide the flexibility that will enable our modernizing electric system to operate.

There are a number of projects in the works.  The Plains & Eastern Clean Line transmission project, for instance, will bring wind power from the Oklahoma Panhandle to western Tennessee.  The project could unlock $7 billion in new investments in wind energy and bring 4,000 megawatts of new capacity into the system.  The high-consuming south (due to air conditioning needs) could use such projects to reduce their emissions: states there have the least access to wind power and therefore have no Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPSs).

Such large projects make a significant difference.  For example, in 2014, Texas unveiled the Competitive Renewable Energy Zone, a $7 billion transmission line project spanning 3,600 miles that sends huge amounts of wind power in west Texas to the power-hungry cities in the eastern half of the state.  Wind curtailment on the main Texas grid operator, ERCOT, was slashed from 17% in 2009 to just 0.5% in 2014.

Looking forward, the increasing importance of wind and solar power makes new transmission a national imperative. After energy efficiency (i.e., demand response), renewables are second in the “loading order” to reduce usage and related greenhouse gas emissions. Some 29 states now have RPSs, which require utilities to sell a specified percentage or amount of renewable electricity.

Existing tax credits, such as the production tax credit that keeps costs low, as well as a tax rebate per kilowatt hour, are helping renewables better compete with natural gas in the power generation sector. The potential seems unlimited: per the DOE’s office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, the nation has the potential to surge its wind capacity 130-fold from the 83 GW that we have today.

And the industry is encouraged by the Trump administration’s stated willingness to support infrastructure projects essential to using more wind and solar power. In fact, transmission is expected to play a key role in the administration’s planned $1 trillion in new infrastructure across the country, a build-out that is mostly supported by Democrats as well.