Gridlock Windblock

by Richard T. Stuebi

I don’t know if it’s a myth, but I’ve heard it said that a city’s suicide rates and average wind speeds are correlated. According to the claim, there may be something fundamental about human biology – perhaps within the inner ear – that makes windiness tend to drive people crazy.

Whether it’s true or not, it’s indisputable that, where there’s lots of wind, there tends to be few people. And, vice versa: where there’s a lot of people, there tends to be little wind.

A casual look at a U.S. wind map confirms this: most of the best wind resources are in the middle of the country, from West Texas in the South to the Dakotas in the North. If you’ve ever driven in any of these parts, you know that this is an endless expanse of desolate, sparsely-populated land.

Unsurprisingly, it’s also the case that, where there are few people, there tend to be few electric transmission lines. Logically, it follows then that there is little electric transmission capacity in the places where wind resources are greatest.

So, when parts of the Great Plains get touted as the “Saudi Arabia of wind”, it may be true, but imagine the need to build a big set of pipelines to get that useful wind energy to customers in Minneapolis, Chicago and points further East and South.

Ask any wind developer about their business prospects, and it doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn to transmission – or, more precisely, the lack of enough of it.

Look at the study “20% Wind Energy by 2030” released in 2008 by the U.S. Department of Energy to envision the implications of supplying 20% of the nation’s electricity needs by 2030 from wind. Oh, there’s plenty of wind to actually supply the electricity, no problem. It’s just that tons of new transmission capacity would be needed.

And there’s the rub. It’s only marginally easier to site and build a new transmission line than a new nuclear powerplant. Transmission lines take many years and sometimes even decades to get done, due to a variety of NIMBY forces and overlapping regulatory regimes at the local, state and federal levels. And, they cost a fortune, easily a million dollars a mile, often considerably more.

So, that “pipeline” from Dakota to Chicago is on the order of a billion dollars of merely enabling infrastructure – and since there are many pinchpoints in the national power grid, that wind power probably couldn’t go much further than the terminating point anyway.

(From a technical standpoint, I’m massively oversimplifying here by comparing the power grid to a commodity pipeline, but the gist of the conclusion is essentially sound.)

Last year, most of the transmission grid operators from the Eastern half of the U.S. convened for the first time (that’s scary, isn’t it?) to develop what has come to be called the Joint Coordinated System Plan (JCSP) 2008. The JCSP report suggests that 10,000 new miles of transmission lines, at an investment of about $50 billion, will be needed east of the Rocky Mountains over the next 15 years just to meet expected load growth and current renewable portfolio standards on the books. Little of this required expansion is much beyond the drawing board.

The JCSP’s 20% wind scenario is even more daunting: 15,000 miles and $80 billion of capital. The map associated with this scenario is especially intriguing, with three major new hypothetical 800 kV DC corridors drawn right across Northeast Ohio to New York City. (No doubt, the nightmare of the August 2003 Northeastern blackout still sends nightmares through these transmission planners.)

Sorry, I just don’t see this happening in my lifetime.

In passing, the authors point out that neither energy efficiency nor offshore wind resources were investigated to alleviate these transmission requirements. My guess is that inclusion of these possibilities would change the results – a lot.

Significant penetration of energy efficiency could probably seriously reduce the quantity of new wind generation required to make up 20% of the region’s supply. Instead of nearly 230 gigawatts (!) of projected new wind capacity in the Eastern U.S. by 2024, my guess is that concerted exploitation of cost-effective energy efficiency opportunities could cut that investment requirement in half.

As for the 100+ gigawatts of new wind turbines in the Eastern U.S., it might be cheaper overall to put higher-cost installations offshore in the Great Lakes and in the Atlantic to avoid facing the perhaps impossible prospect of building lots of expensive new transmission lines to import onshore wind from the Great Plains.

The inability to expand transmission is a major impediment to the onshore wind business, and while it might be mitigated (slightly) with some regulatory reform, I don’t see it going away. Offshore wind may have its own development challenges, but for those in the wind industry, going offshore should become an increasingly interesting way to skirt the gridlock problem.

Richard T. Stuebi is the Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc. Later in 2009, he will also become a Managing Director of Early Stage Partners.

2 replies
  1. Ken Clive
    Ken Clive says:

    Why don't they just put VAWT's (vertical axis turbines) on top of electric poles and towers? That way, electricity would be directly fed into the grid, and long-distance transmission of wind power wouldn't be such a hassle. Plus VAWT's aren't as aesthetically obtrusive, weigh less, and don't have to be oriented in the wind's direction (therefore wasting less mechanical work).

  2. Colin
    Colin says:

    They are starting to put them all over the place here in Colorado. I've even seem them on the top of new buildings. However, resident of certain neighborhoods have been complaining of other neighbors putting up their own windmills. It was strange that he was generating more power than his needed and the power plants were actually having to pay him. I just don't understand, having one located on every street lamp would be enough to set off enough energy to power an entire block for a year.

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