Harvest the Wind (Beacon Press, 2012) by Philip Warburg shows how winds sweeping through the Great Plains once robbed the Farm Belt of its future, stripping away overworked topsoil and creating the dreaded Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Today, this wind power brings new hope to the declining rural communities of the central United States. Nowhere is wind’s promise more palpable than in Cloud County, Kansas, where the soaring turbines of the Meridian Way Wind Farm are boosting incomes and bringing green jobs to a community that has, for decades, watched its children drift away. The following excerpt comes from chapter 9, “Greening the Grid.”
You can buy this book in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Harvest the Wind.
When Meridian Way’s rotors are turning, electrons race down insulated cables to the base of each tower. From there, a network of collector lines gathers all the power produced by the wind farm’s turbines and carries it via miles of underground collector lines to one of two transformer stations at the wind farm site. These transformers then boost the power to 230 kilovolts, readying it for dispatch to the grid. All of this happens almost instantaneously.
Horizon Wind is lucky to have two high-voltage transmission lines nearby. Running through the countryside on tall steel stanchions, these lines carry power to Empire District Electric and Westar, the two utilities that have bought nearly equal shares of Meridian Way’s output. Brad Beecher, chief operating officer of Empire District Electric, leads me through what happens next. Knowing roughly how much power his company’s 160,000 customers use, he has to be sure to feed an equivalent amount of electricity to the grid. “We know how much water our customers are taking from the bathtub and we have to put that much water in the bathtub,” he explains metaphorically.
Empire District’s electricity comes from a variety of sources—mostly from coal and gas, although wind now supplies about 15 percent of its customers’ needs. In addition to owning half of Meridian Way’s output, the company has contracted for all the power coming from Elk River, the Flint Hills wind farm that includes Pete Ferrell’s land. Some of the electrons generated at Meridian Way may actually reach the homes, businesses, and factories of Empire District’s customers, but electrons are notoriously promiscuous. “You can’t tell which electrons flow to our customers’ meters,” Beecher tells me.
Once on the grid, electrons intermingle, not just with other electrons generated by a single company but with all the electrons produced by all the power suppliers that are part of an area’s wholesale power pool. These markets typically cover multistate areas and, in much of the country, are governed by entities known as regional transmission organizations or independent system operators. Empire District is part of the Southwest Power Pool, a consortium of power producers, transmission providers, and electricity distributors stretching across all or part of eight states. The Southwest Power Pool’s origins go back to 1941, when a group of utilities marshaled all available electricity for wartime aluminum production in Arkansas.
With transmission lines readily accessible, the developers of Meridian Way and Elk River had a relatively easy time getting their power onto the grid. This is far from the case in many other wind-blown parts of the country. On the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)’s color-coded maps, America’s richest wind resources run through stretches of the eastern Rockies and Great Plains where people are few and power demand is pretty stable. Tapping the winds that sweep through these areas is relatively easy. Finding a reliable market for the wind-generated electricity is the hard part. Because existing conventional power plants meet most local needs, wind developers must seek out more distant buyers, often in population centers many hundreds of miles away.
To get a firsthand look at some of the hurdles involved in moving wind-generated power from where it’s produced to where it’s most needed, I visited Wyoming, home to some of the nation’s strongest and steadiest winds. Nowhere are those winds more robust than along a stretch of Interstate 25 that runs from Casper down to Cheyenne, in the southeastern quadrant of the state. Bob Whitton stood with me on a wooden porch just off the kitchen of his modest wood-frame ranch house, about sixty miles north of Cheyenne and just a mile or so east of I-25. He pointed to the rolled bales of hay that block the lower half of the windows on the west side of his home. These makeshift barriers help deflect the winds that blow hard off the foothills of the Rockies before crossing the gently rolling grasslands where he raises a small herd of Black Angus cattle.
He bought his ranch when he retired from the Air Force in 1994, after thirty years of piloting F4s, F5s, and F15s. Early one December morning not long ago, Bob gazed out his kitchen window off to the west. There, strewn along I-25 near the Bordeaux junction, he could make out the long rectangular shapes of three overturned semi-trailers, flipped during the night by the howling winds. Later he drove out to the highway and found three more semis lying on their sides.
Bob’s ranch is in an area that has earned NREL’s top ranking, with average winds rated at over 10 meters per second, or 22.4 miles per hour. In the cold winter months, they often reach 30 to 40 miles per hour, posing a particular danger to newborn calves. “The wind will kill a calf pretty fast; the cold, not quite so fast,” he says. Shielding calves from the elements is one wintertime ordeal; keeping his herd fed is another, as hay rolled out for feed often gets carried away by the wind. “Every time the wind blows, it costs me a lot of money.”
These winds can be a formidable burden, but Bob knows better than most how to translate them into an economic opportunity. Along with running his ranch, he chairs a coalition of pro-wind landowner associations called the Renewable Energy Alliance of Landowners (REAL). This innovative group has jettisoned the traditional model, whereby a wind developer scouts around for promising sites and then approaches landowners one by one, retaining the upper hand in lining up agreements for the lease of their property.
REAL’s 300 members recognize that, along with owning lands that are good for cattle, they hold a valuable resource in the winds that rip through their section of the state. Instead of waiting for a company like Horizon or Invenergy to come to them, they have formed associations that actively seek out takers for the wind on their ranchlands. Some neighbors have created limited liability corporations; others work together informally. Some associations include as many as forty landowners; others involve just a few like-minded property owners.
Together, REAL’s members have 800,000 acres of southeastern Wyoming lands that they are ready to market for wind. Back in 2008, Bob and some neighbors formed their own local group, the Bordeaux Landowners Association, now one of REAL’s member associations. Putting 15,000 acres on the table, they began reaching out to wind companies with a neat package that included wind data, topographical maps, photos, and other documentation.
Their prospectus went out to about fifty developers, and several responded. Negotiations ensued, and in February 2010, they signed on with Pathfinder Renewable Energy LLC, a Wyoming company backed by Dallas-based Sammons Enterprises, a private holding company with close to $45 billion in assets.
I met Pathfinder’s land agent Vic Garber at a public board meeting of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority, a quasi-governmental agency that helps expand Wyoming’s electric transmission infrastructure through planning assistance, financing, and even co-ownership of new lines and related facilities. Vic described Pathfinder’s total ambition for its wind farm: 2.1 gigawatts of installed capacity sited across roughly 100,000 acres of land on both sides of Interstate 25. Built at that scale, it will dwarf all other wind farms operating in America today.
Within Wyoming, Pathfinder may ultimately be surpassed by another mega-project sited about 100 miles to the west. There, on a sprawling ranch covering 500 square miles of rugged upland territory, a local subsidiary of the Denver-based Anschutz Corporation is moving forward with a project that may harness as much as three gigawatts of Wyoming wind by 2015. Philip F. Anschutz, the privately held company’s owner, built his multibillion-dollar fortune on oil and gas exploration ventures inherited from his father. In the late 1980s, he began acquiring railroad interests and later diversified into telecommunications, digital video data management, and ownership of a nationwide network of movie theaters. Today he is part-owner of the Los Angeles Lakers and other sports teams. Wind is no impulsive dream for this hard-headed entrepreneur.
Recognizing the market potential for Wyoming wind in faraway places, public utilities and independent “merchant” developers are racing to build long-range transmission lines. One of these projects, the Zephyr, has as its starting point the village of Chugwater, just a few miles south of Bob Whitton’s ranch. From there, it will travel due west into Idaho and then turn south toward Las Vegas, in the power-hungry Sun Belt. If all goes according to plan, this 1,100-mile electron expressway will be fully operational by 2016.
Pathfinder Renewable Energy has committed to take two-thirds of the Zephyr’s capacity; two other wind developers—Horizon and BP Wind Energy—have contracted for the remainder. The total project cost is estimated to be $3 billion, or a little less than $3 million per mile.
Nevada and California are also prime markets for the Chokecherry–Sierra Madre wind complex. Anschutz is planning on building its own transmission line, the TransWest Express, picking up power from the company’s 1,000 or so planned wind turbines in south-central Wyoming and carrying it directly to southern Nevada. Some of the power moved by these two lines might be consumed in Nevada, which has a renewable electricity standard that calls for 25 percent of its power to come from renewable sources by 2025. The prize destination for Wyoming wind energy, though, is California, trumping all of its neighbors in both the scale of its power market and the ambition of its renewable energy mandate. California will need to import substantial amounts of power from out of state if it is to meet its 33-percent-by-2020 renewable electricity standard. In-state wind and solar projects just aren’t being developed quickly enough to meet this mandate.
The Zephyr and TransWest Express, relying on extra-high voltage current, will be much more energy-conserving than the lower-voltage lines that carry Meridian Way’s power to market. If the Zephyr, a 500-kilovolt line, were to rely on AC current, it would lose about 1.3 percent of its power every 100 miles. If it increased its voltage to 765 kilovolts, it would shed as little as a half-percent of its power over the same distance. However, because both projects plan to rely on more highly efficient DC current, they may see as much as a 20 percent further decrease in their line losses.
Building a major new power line is not simply a matter of choosing the right technology. The transmission developer must comply with an array of federal laws, including those that govern the use of federal lands and those that protect threatened and endangered species. In Wyoming, as throughout much of the West, the federal government is a major stakeholder in the planning and siting of new transmission lines. One look at the pattern of land ownership in Wyoming makes it clear why. Nearly half the land in the state—about 30 million acres—is owned and controlled by the federal government. Some of this land is in sprawling, contiguous parcels, while the rest follows a quirky pattern known as the Wyoming Checkerboard—a holdover from the 1860s, when Congress passed two successive acts aimed at opening up the West. All along a rail right-of-way running across the state, alternating square-mile sections of land were handed over to the Union Pacific Railroad, extending out twenty miles on each side of the tracks.
Given the role of transmission in creating new frontiers for economic development, it’s no coincidence that the labels given to several proposed interstate power lines resonate with the region’s rail lore. TransCanada’s Zephyr line shares its name with one of Amtrak’s most dramatically scenic routes, rolling from Chicago across the Great Plains and the Rockies to San Francisco. The monikers of other planned lines similarly evoke the spirit of America’s railroad heritage: the TransWest Express and High Plains Express, both running out of Wyoming, and the Green Power Express, rooted in the Dakotas.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), within the Department of the Interior, oversees a rigorous, multiyear process of evaluating transmission projects that cross federal lands. In doing so, it has to reckon with a range of factors, reflecting what one BLM official calls its “schizophrenic” mandate. On one hand, the agency is charged by various federal laws with promoting the exploitation of commodity resources on federal lands—underground minerals as well as surface assets such as timber and grasslands. On the other hand, another whole set of federal laws calls upon the BLM to conserve our natural resources for future use while protecting the wildlife and habitats on those lands.
Amidst these mixed signals, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 pointed the BLM toward wind development with its call for at least 10 gigawatts of non-hydropower renewable energy projects to be built on public lands by 2015. Tom Lahti, who is the BLM’s Renewable Energy Chief in its Wyoming office, decided that the BLM should not simply wait for good projects to present themselves. Instead, he initiated a study to identify the most promising areas for wind development on Wyoming’s federal lands. Access to present or proposed transmission lines is one priority. Another concern is preserving wildlife—making sure that key habitats for vulnerable species like sage grouse, eagles, and migrating bats are taken into account. Viewshed protection is a third consideration, giving special attention to the state’s extensive network of National Historic Trails.
Once a number of wind development areas have been identified, Tom expects that the BLM will lease them out on a competitive basis, just as it does today when offering large parcels of federal land for oil and gas drilling. This would be fairer, he feels, than the BLM’s current ad hoc approach, whereby parcels are leased out in response to wind developers’ individual requests. Under the present system, Tom says, “The only competition is . . . who gets there first.”
The BLM and other federal agencies are also taking a proactive approach to charting out corridors that would allow a range of energy resources—oil, gas, and perhaps someday hydrogen, as well as electricity—to move more easily across public lands. In November 2008, the government released its proposed West-Wide Energy Corridor, making it clear to transmission developers that, while they are not strictly confined to this corridor, it will be easier to gain federal approval for lines that stay within its alignment.
Obtaining federal rights-of-way is only one piece of a complex set of negotiations that the developers of projects like the Zephyr and the TransWest Express must undertake. States vary widely in the degree of deference given to local zoning boards and county commissions. In Nevada, for example, counties and municipalities largely govern the siting of transmission lines, whereas in Wyoming, primary control over transmission line authorization rests with two state agencies, the Industrial Siting Council and the Public Service Commission.
As it can take years to arrange rights-of-way over hundreds of miles of public and private lands, wind companies have to time their planning and development efforts carefully. On one hand, they don’t want to have wind turbines sitting idle for months—or even years—while a transmission line is moving slowly toward completion. (This has been the situation in China, where wind developers have installed massive new generating capacity in Inner Mongolia and other rural provinces years before the State Grid has built the necessary transmission infrastructure.) On the other hand, wind developers don’t want to find themselves carrying the cost of reserved space on a transmission line that is ready for business long before their turbines are in the ground and the blades have started spinning.
Beyond federal and state agency review, proponents of new transmission lines must deal with the concerns of citizen groups, including those who suspect that certain of these lines may be stalking horses for coal power interests. Howard Learner heads up the Environmental
Law and Policy Center, a multistate advocacy group headquartered in Chicago. His suspicions center on the Green Power Express, a 3,000-mile network of 765-kilovolt AC power lines, heralded by its proponent, ITC Transmission, as a $10- to $12-billion project “designed to efficiently move up to 12,000 megawatts of renewable energy in wind-rich areas to major Midwest load centers.” Howard directed me to a map on the ITC website, which shows the project’s starting point in North Dakota’s Antelope Valley. “The wind belt in North Dakota is not principally around Antelope Valley,” he said flatly. “You’ve got to scratch the surface a little bit to figure out who the transmission is going to serve.”
I took Howard’s advice and started scratching. Via the online watchdog group SourceWatch, I had no difficulty finding the Antelope Valley Station, an 870-megawatt coal-burning giant right where Howard said it would be. I also found another five coal-fired power plants within a forty-mile radius of Antelope Valley, adding up to more than 4,000 megawatts of capacity. Might the Green Power Express end up carrying coal-generated electrons out of North Dakota, along with or instead of power from renewables? Nothing under federal law or policy would seem to bar this outcome. To the contrary, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)’s “open access” transmission policy, adopted in 1996, is designed explicitly to ensure open, non-discriminatory access to the nation’s transmission system.
Howard and his colleagues at the Environmental Law and Policy Center worry that lines like the Green Power Express could become part of a larger network of new transmission lines that deliver coal power, produced and sold relatively cheaply in the Midwest, to higher-priced electricity markets in the Northeast. The Union of Concerned Scientists, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shares this concern.
In a 2008 study, the group looked at the market dynamics that could emerge as a result of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the Northeast’s cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions. The study pointed to a critical flaw in the RGGI regime’s focus on power plants in a single region. Conceptually, the auction-based trading of carbon allowances among northeastern utilities is intended to stimulate a switch to cleaner fuels and energy efficiency measures. In practice, the upward pressure that RGGI places on the price of coal-generated power could entice enterprising Midwest utilities to export their dirtier, cheaper power to the Northeast. Building a new cohort of power lines connecting the two regions would only make it easier for this to happen.
Some East Coast politicians and energy planners express a very different aversion to new power lines coming out of the Midwest. They fear that stepped-up transmission would give wind power generated in the Midwest too ready a market in the East, where large-scale wind farms have been slow to emerge. Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts, for decades a champion of renewable energy development, expressed this view when I visited his Capitol Hill office in
April 2010. “The consensus in New England is to capture this wind revolution and make it our own,” he told me, earning nods of approval from the three members of his staff who huddled with us around a coffee table strewn with books about U.S. energy policy. At the time, Markey held leadership positions on two key congressional energy committees—positions he lost when the Republicans gained a majority in the House in November 2010.
Markey’s jealous guarding of East Coast wind was based on data he had seen that pointed to the region’s surplus of untapped, primarily offshore wind. He said that 30 to 40 gigawatts of offshore wind was already economically developable. (That’s about three to four times the total installed power-generating capacity in Massachusetts today.) Hundreds of additional gigawatts would be within reach once deep-water wind technology matures, he added. This bullish embrace of offshore wind struck me as slightly odd, given the equivocal position Markey had long taken on Cape Wind during most of its tormented journey through state and federal permitting. It was not until November 2009, three months after Ted Kennedy’s death, that Markey called explicitly for federal approval of the project. Presumably he had refrained from endorsing Cape Wind out of deference to Kennedy’s outright hostility to wind turbines in Nantucket Sound. Few members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation had been willing to part ways with the state’s senior senator on this controversial issue.
FERC chairman Jon Wellinghoff takes a less-parochial stance on the nexus between wind and wires. He believes that wind could provide upwards of 50 percent of our power needs nationwide, and he is convinced that our most promising wind resources can only be accessed if we make an all-out commitment to building new transmission lines. He punctuates his public presentations with slides showing the advanced visions for grid development that are fast emerging overseas.
On one slide, 25,000 miles of high-voltage conduits interconnect a future Europe with renewable resources ranging from Norwegian hydro to vast solar energy farms stretching across North Africa. On another slide, he shows China’s fast-emerging supergrid, with row upon row of 800-kilovolt lines bringing power from wind-rich areas in the country’s western reaches to major cities in the East.
I asked the FERC chairman how he regarded environmentalists’ concerns about coal piggybacking on new American power lines ostensibly built for wind. His response was blunt, even irritated: “I think it’s an urban myth.” Coal plants like those near Antelope Valley have all the transmission they need, he said, adding that new coal-fired facilities are unlikely to be built in the coming years, given uncertainties about the future price of carbon-based power production. As evidence of the slowdown in coal plant development, he pointed to the tilt toward wind in the commissioning of new generating capacity in 2009: “We had almost 10,000 megawatts of wind put on the system last year. That was almost ten times the amount of coal.”
A stepped-up investment in coal-fired power generation may not be as remote a possibility today as it was when I met with Wellinghoff in the spring of 2010. Carbon taxation and market-based trading of carbon allowances were prime targets of the anti-incumbent fervor that brought a new wave of Tea Party–inspired Republicans to Congress just a few months later. The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, cosponsored by Markey and California congressman Henry Waxman, was unfortunately a lightning rod for this hostility. The nationwide cap-and-trade program that it proposed for carbon emissions from major industries was roundly attacked as a punitive drag on an already flagging economy. When the 112th Congress convened, cap-and-trade was dead. Also abandoned was Waxman and Markey’s proposal for a nationwide electricity standard that would set explicit targets for power generation from renewable sources.
In its stead, discussions shifted to a much more amorphous “clean energy standard” that would include nuclear power, as well as advanced methods of burning coal. If this reformulation finds its way into law, there may be added cause for concern about the encroachment of nonrenewable electrons onto new “green” transmission lines.
Questions may remain about competing uses of an expanded and modernized grid, yet it’s clear that without a major investment in new transmission, much of our nation’s wind energy potential will remain beyond reach. Recognizing this, the drafters of the 2009 stimulus package allocated $6 billion in loan guarantees for renewable energy generation and electric transmission projects and another $4.5 billion in matching grants to modernize the grid. In his Earth Day 2009 speech before wind tower factory workers in Newton, Iowa, President Obama was passionate in endorsing this investment. “The nation that leads the world in creating new sources of clean energy will be the nation that leads the twenty-first-century global economy,” he declared, adding that “we also need a smarter, stronger electricity grid to carry that energy from one end of this country to the other.”
In fact, federal efforts to create priority transmission corridors for new energy investments predated the Obama administration’s recovery program by several years. As early as 2002, the Department of Energy began exploring ways for FERC to break transmission bottlenecks when state agencies and regional planning bodies fail to move priority grid expansion projects forward. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 then stretched FERC’s role in transmission line siting, giving it authority to issue permits for new transmission investments in designated national priority corridors if state siting bodies “withheld approval” for more than a year.
A firestorm ensued when FERC interpreted this law as giving it the power to step in where a state has denied a siting permit, as opposed to simply not acting on it. The Virginia-based Piedmont Environmental Council, together with other citizen groups and state public service commissions, brought suit and won a federal circuit court ruling that preserved the prerogative of states to turn down new transmission lines. When the Supreme Court declined to review this ruling, it became clear that without new federal legislation, states would remain in firm control of transmission line siting.
Today the debate continues to rage over who should be involved in siting decisions about new interstate transmission lines. Two leading industry groups, AWEA and the Solar Energy Industries Association, insist that FERC should have ultimate control over the siting of multistate transmission lines, similar to the authority it currently exercises over interstate natural gas pipelines. Don Furman, a veteran wind developer who recently chaired AWEA’s board, candidly refers to state officials as a mismatch for decision making on transmission investments. Governors and public utility commissioners have told him, “We’re not getting paid to go out there and build major interregional transmission. It needs to be done, but you ought not ask us to do it, to approve it, because that’s not our job.”
Furman likens the U.S. grid to a patchwork of country roads. What’s needed, he says, is equivalent to our interstate highway system. Just as the interstate’s planners and builders relied heavily on the federal government’s strong guiding hand, he favors firm federal leadership in building a superhighway network for electric power.
Howard Learner remains wary of giving FERC too free a hand in authorizing new transmission lines. Although his group is an active proponent of wind power, the Environmental Law and Policy Center has also worked to strengthen and enforce state laws protecting wetlands and other natural habitats. These laws, he fears, could be compromised if their protections are downplayed or preempted by a new federal siting regime.
Chris Miller of the Piedmont Environmental Council is even more adamant about keeping the federal government away from transmission-line siting. Having won the court battle that now limits FERC’s power to override state siting decisions, he strongly rejects the view that the global climate crisis calls for decisions that could trump local planning priorities. “I don’t see climate change and the international consensus of scientists as being any more politically valid than the desire of people here to have control over their viewshed,” he tells me.
At some level, he acknowledges that climate change is a problem. To address it, he argues half-heartedly for energy efficiency and greater use of passive solar building design. He concedes that these steps will fall far short of getting us the cutbacks in U.S. carbon emissions that so much of the scientific community is calling for, but he resents the “energy geeks” who are pressing for deeper cuts in pursuit of what he calls “an unratified policy of 80 percent greenhouse gas reduction.”
I met with Chris at the Piedmont Environmental Council’s headquarters, in a beautifully restored clapboard house just off Main Street in historic Warrenton, Virginia. Driving into Warrenton just before our meeting, I grasped just how far area planners are willing to go to preserve at least the surface trappings of colonial authenticity. Tract houses spill across the rolling hills, their fake clapboard aluminum siding only slightly more convincing than their make-believe window mullions. Post-and-rail fences made of white molded plastic only add to the effect, bracketing the road, dipping down into ravines, and running across empty expanses of close-cropped grass. This is horse country minus the horses.
As I drove out of Warrenton past shopping malls and medical offices designed to look like eighteenth-century brick manor houses, I couldn’t help thinking how tough a time transmission planners will have building a green-power superhighway worthy of the name. However the balance is struck between state and federal decision making on transmission-line siting, tensions between widely divergent values and worldviews will only grow as we move from the abstract notion of a twenty-first-century supergrid to the reality of laying new wires across the American landscape.
To supply 20 percent of our electricity from wind by 2030, the Department of Energy estimates that we will need to invest about $60 billion in expanding the American grid. That would amount to about $30 per household per year, or a monthly cost of $2.50 per household, between 2012 and 2030. While this may sound like a very modest price for a monumental resource shift in our electricity sector, the dissension over who should pay for new transmission lines has been almost as explosive as the jurisdictional debate over siting them.
FERC has refrained from imposing a one-size-fits-all allocation formula on these new transmission investments, instead inviting multistate transmission groups to develop schemes that fairly reflect the range of generation needs and ratepayer benefits in their service areas.
One regional transmission organization, the PJM Interconnection, coordinates the flow of power across all or part of thirteen Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states and the District of Columbia. More than 160 gigawatts of generating capacity and more than 50,000 miles of transmission lines are under PJM’s control. When PJM proposed to spread the costs of major new transmission lines evenly among all utilities in its system, it raised the hackles of Midwest utilities that rely mainly on lower-voltage power lines to deliver electricity over relatively short distances. The power companies claimed that PJM’s cost-spreading formula would force them to underwrite transmission lines built primarily for the benefit of electricity consumers in the eastern PJM states.
The Southwest Power Pool has just adopted a more nuanced scheme for spreading the costs of new high-voltage transmission across its eight-state region. This “Highway-Byway” formula assigns the full costs of “Electricity Highways”—high-voltage, longer-distance lines—to all system users. “Electricity Byways”—mid-voltage lines generally covering less terrain—allocate a third of costs on a systemwide basis, leaving two-thirds to be paid within the zone where the project is located. And all the costs of lower-voltage lines are borne locally.
Although it’s an unlikely stretch given the prevailing antitax sentiments in Congress, some have proposed a new federal transmission tariff to supplement regional cost recovery mechanisms like the Highway/Byway formula. There is precedent for such a tax in the federal portion of the gasoline tax, which has been a financial mainstay of the interstate highway system since the 1950s and, to a lesser extent, a revenue source for federally supported mass transit projects. Susan Tierney, who headed up the Department of Energy’s policy efforts during Bill Clinton’s administration, symbolically invokes the federal highway system when she calls for this tariff to support a nationwide “interstate electric highway system.” She asserts: “State and utility service- territory boundaries have no more meaning for the transmission grid than they do for the transportation highway system, since electrons flow across boundaries according to the laws of physics rather than the laws of states.” More practically, she justifies this investment because of the essential national purposes it would serve: the provision of a “reliable, economic, secure supply” of power and the shift toward a U.S. economy based on clean, renewable energy.
However the costs of new transmission lines are shared, there is no escaping the fact that building new power conduits across large expanses of the United States will come at a considerable cost to the American public. Arriving at a fair way to socialize these costs will be crucial to gaining public acceptance of a new energy infrastructure that will give wind and other dispersed renewables their rightful place in our energy mix.
Building a wind-friendly transmission system is not just about stringing up wires and finding ways to pay for them. Accommodating the wind’s variability demands constant vigilance. When winds drop off unexpectedly, grid operators must act immediately to make sure that electricity customers don’t suddenly find themselves without electric power. When wind-generated output rises above predicted levels, system operators must take steps to absorb that power without destabilizing the grid.
Hydropower has long been used to help overstressed power systems cope with periods of peak demand, particularly on hot summer days when air conditioning needs outstrip the capacity of baseload serving fossil fuel and nuclear power plants. As wind energy has become a more significant power resource in recent years, hydro dams and pumped-storage reservoirs have increasingly been called into play to keep power systems in balance. Within minutes, a hydro facility can step up its power output by channeling more water through its turbines. To soak up excess power, it can activate pumps that will transport water to an elevated storage reservoir. Coal and nuclear plants, which are slow to heat up and cool down, simply cannot make the swift shifts in power often needed to work in tandem with variable winds.
While hydropower and quick-starting, gas-fired turbines play an important role in keeping the grid balanced, today’s transmission innovators are coming up with a variety of new technologies and management tools. Jon Wellinghoff brims with enthusiasm when he talks about innovations like smart-metered electric vehicles that allow a centralized, automated dispatcher to send incremental pulses of power to and from plugged-in car batteries to help maintain a balance between energy demand and available electric current. Most cars, he says, sit idle for twenty to twenty-two hours a day. Connected to the grid during those many hours, tens of millions of vehicles in an electric car fleet can serve as a vast balancing resource, easily accessed by grid operators. He and Knud Pedersen of Denmark’s DONG Energy would have a lot to discuss as Denmark moves forward with its own electric vehicle network.
Wellinghoff also gets excited about buildings whose heating and cooling can be controlled remotely to ease power use in low-wind periods and increase consumption when the winds are strong. In the same animated way, he speaks of “sentient” appliances like refrigerators with multiple functions—defrosting, ice making, moisture control, and ordinary cooling—programmed independently to modulate power use. “You don’t care when your refrigerator compressor is on. You don’t care when your defrost cycle is on,” he explains. “You only care that you have a cold beer, nothing defrosts, and you have ice when you need it.”
Utility-scale flywheels are now used in a few areas to even out bumps in power flow from second to second and minute to minute. This service is called “frequency regulation.” Wellinghoff, a longtime Nevadan, tells me that my home state of Massachusetts is at the forefront in applying this technology. In Tyngsboro, the Beacon Power Corporation has installed 3 megawatts of flywheel storage and is on its way to integrating multiple flywheel units into a 20-megawatt storage system. These devices store excess power by converting it into kinetic energy: a carbon-fiber cylinder, vacuum-sealed and levitated by magnetic bearings to minimize friction, rotates at speeds of up to 16,000 revolutions per minute. When power is needed, the flywheel’s stored energy is tapped to drive a generator that feeds electrons back into the grid.
Flywheels are sometimes called grid “shock absorbers” because of their nimbleness in taking on and discharging energy in rapid response to grid-balancing needs.45 Flywheels may be nimble, but Throop Wilder maintains that his company’s batteries will do a better job matching the variability of wind power over multihour periods. Wilder is president of 24M, a Massachusetts-based startup located in a small suite of offices adjacent to the MIT campus in Cambridge.
According to Wilder, the 24M battery, which uses a lithium ion–based semisolid suspension, will bring down the cost of batteries and reduce the space they require. “We will be able to deliver 1 megawatt of power over a four-hour period from a battery the size of a small walk-in closet,” he claims. This compactness will allow battery storage to be sited in urban locations, right near consumers, rather than relying on remote multi-acre sites now used for pumped hydro storage reservoirs—a current mainstay in balancing power from multiple generation sources.
Underground injection of compressed air is being explored as another means of energy storage that could help level out the fluctuations in power produced by wind farms. With this technology, surplus electricity is used to compress air, which is then pumped into a geological formation such as an abandoned mine, a salt dome, or a capped layer of subterranean sandstone. When power is needed, the air is brought back to the surface. As the air is reheated, its expansion creates sufficient pressure to turn a set of turbines. In Iowa, a consortium of municipalities spent several years studying a thousand-acre site where air would be pumped into a sandstone aquifer two thousand feet below ground. One of the state’s top proponents of community-based wind power, appropriately enough named Tom Wind, was a lead consultant on the project. Though this site was ultimately determined a poor match for the planned 270-megawatt project, two other utility-scale compressed-air energy storage facilities are already operating—in Alabama and Germany.
As we work to green the American grid, we need new planning tools, siting provisions, and financing strategies that will help us create a grid that measures up to the extraordinary wind resources across our continent and off our shores. Regional transmission organizations have a vital role to play in coordinating current grid operations, assessing future needs, and coming up with fair and equitable cost-sharing mechanisms for new projects. Ultimately, though, strategic investments in new grid infrastructure may require a higher degree of national direction to break through state and local logjams.
Building a twenty-first-century grid invites ingenuity as well as collaboration. From Beacon Power’s flywheels to 24M’s batteries, smart innovators are already rising to the challenge. The groundwork for a new power infrastructure that makes wind a major player is now being laid. The next steps will require clear vision and careful planning, as well as political leaders who are committed to moving America to a new era of energy self-reliance and energy security.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from, published by Beacon Press, 2012. Buy this book from our store:Harvest the Wind: America’s Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence, and Climate Stability