TULSA, Okla. – Wind energy’s biggest expansion hurdle is not a lack of supply or demand. Or even local wildlife.
It’s a matter of getting the energy from the turbine to the consumer.
American wind power development may have to be curtailed by as much as 15.5 percent in some areas without additional transmission lines and upgrades to existing infrastructure, according to a technical report the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory issued in January.
If just four currently proposed transmission projects are built, wind power curtailment could be reduced by about half, cutting lost generating potential to less than 8 percent, the study found. Curtailment could be cut further if additional projects are developed, but those projects come with diminishing returns.
But additional transmission lines cannot simply come online overnight. The permitting processes vary from state to state and among the country’s eight regional transmission organizations.
The Southwest Power Pool handles the energy grid and wholesale electric market for 550,000 square miles across 14 states, including Oklahoma. The regional transmission organization is based in Little Rock, Arkansas.
In February, the Southwest Power Pool became the first grid manager in North America to serve more than half its customers at one time with wind power, for a five-minute increment. Electricity generated from the wind now accounts for up to 19 percent of its generating capacity, up from about 1 percent a decade ago.
The organization approved 13 transmission line upgrades in January as part of a 10-year planning portfolio. The new infrastructure will include electricity from both renewable and non-renewable resources and is in response to growing demand for power.
“It’s a Catch-22 for us,” SPP Vice President Lanny Nickell said. “If we can slow down how many renewables are added, we can catch up. That’s the key question for us.”
Michigan-based ITC Holdings Corp. is also examining long-term planning options to accommodate infrastructure needs.
“I like to think of the planning process as like a river,” ITC Holding Director of Regional Planning Alan Myers said. “It’s always flowing, always moving and not always noticeable by the public.”
ITC Holdings has 5.8 gigawatt-hours of wind-generated electricity running through its transmission lines in Kansas, Oklahoma, Michigan, Iowa and Minnesota. Each state runs on a different permitting timetable.
The Kansas Corporation Commission can take up to 120 days to issue a transmission siting permit. Oklahoma doesn’t require siting permits.
“A number of states have some sort of central process where you have to prove the need and show the route,” Myers said. “There’s pluses and minuses to both, and we’ve built lines in both types of states.”
Transmission lines should be properly vetted by regulators because that infrastructure will last for many years and it’s important companies get it right, he said.
The CapX2020 transmission line project, which has complete four of five planned high-voltage transmission lines across the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin, was partially built to help bring wind and solar energy eastward from the Dakota’s, according to the project’s website.
Although SPP’s pending transmission line upgrades are slated to address congestion in developmentally constrained areas such as southwest Missouri and West Texas, wind farm projects of all sizes are still feeling the short-term infrastructure pinch, prompting energy companies to plan their sites accordingly.
Corpus Christi, Texas-based Amshore US Wind is among the entities that work with SPP as one of the developers of Frontier Windpower Project. The 61-turbine wind farm is east of Blackwell, Oklahoma, and came online in late 2016. The 200-megawatt site generates enough power for about 60,000 homes and was developed for a 22-year power purchase agreement with City Utilities of Springfield, Missouri.
Amshore US Wind has wind farms in Iowa, southern Texas and northern Mexico and surface leases for 57,000 acres in western Osage County, Oklahoma, near Fairfax and Burbank. Amshore is currently conducting feasibility studies on an additional proposed wind farm site along U.S. Highway 60. It has applied for a permit from Osage County to build a 1-mile service road to three towers that have been used to collect data.
If Amshore’s Osage County project happens, it would not come online until at 2018 at the earliest.
Company vice president Jeff Neves wrote in an email to BridgeTower Media that many local factors affect whether a project is economically feasible, including: local willingness to participate and support clean domestic energy development, environmental impacts, wind resource, and siting constraints. Infrastructure is necessary to get electricity to the market, just as it’s required for oil and natural gas commodities.
“But the most important component is access to transmission and transmission that has secure and substantial enough capacity and room on the line in order to support a utility-scale power project,” Neves wrote.
SPP spokesman Derek Wingfield said the 13 new transmission projects approved this year aren’t the ultimate solution to ending wind congestion in the Great Plains.
“We’re not done, but it’s an ongoing process as the grid evolves,” he said.
BridgeTower Media reporter Sarah Terry-Cobo contributed to this report.