Renewables focus new interest on regional transmission

Transmission line access is emerging as a major roadblock to greater development of renewable energy resources, and legislators at the state and federal levels are considering new proposals to streamline approval processes.


Transmission line access is emerging as a major roadblock to greater development of renewable energy resources, and legislators at the state and federal levels are considering new proposals to streamline approval processes.

More than 25 states now have renewable portfolio standards (RPS) in place that require electric utilities to purchase a percentage of the power they sell to consumers from renewable resources. The definitions of “renewable” differ among the states, but they all include wind and solar power among acceptable technologies. In some states, utilities will be expected to provide up to 20% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. The lack of transmission-line access to these often-remote resources is causing many providers to question the attainability of such goals.

In fact, up to 60 gigaW of new renewable capacity will need to be developed by 2025 if states are to meet current RPS goals, according to a study released in April by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. More than 93% of nonhydroelectric renewable capacity added since 1998 has come from wind power, said the authors of “Renewables Portfolio Standards in the United States.” Many of the best locations for wind-power generation are not served by existing transmission lines, raising the call for a coordinated approach to new development efforts.

The National Energy Policy Act of 2005 is addressing transmission congestion. The U.S. Dept. of Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission have been given power to declare national interest energy transmission corridors, within which federal authorities may be able to provide construction permits for especially contentious projects. Now some areas are considering similar corridors for areas where renewable energy might be especially plentiful.

The Western Governors Assn., which represents the interests of 19 states, kicked off the Western Renewable Energy Zones Project in May. The initiative aims to identify regional renewable energy districts and encourage development of transmission capacity to reach these areas. Two Canadian provinces and areas of Mexico that also are connected to the Western Interconnection also are participating.

Building on this effort, Sen. Harry Reid (R-Nevada) proposed legislation this spring authorizing federal renewable energy zones, where renewable sources could generate at least 1,000 MW. The bill would provide new financing options for building transmission lines needed to connect those resources.

At the opposite end of the country, Maine regulators are taking a comprehensive look at that state’s transmission system, spurred by interconnection requests by developers to add up to 1,250 MW of wind-power capacity to the state’s grid. Maine’s transmission system has been declared maxed out by regulators, so new project developers have no way to get their power to market. Proposed line upgrades would enable that electricity to serve the entire New England grid. One of the proposed projects would add up to 400 wind turbines, and 800 MW of capacity to Aroostook County, at the state’s northernmost point.

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