A lack of transmission infrastructure remains as one of the biggest impediments to a meaningful expansion of the wind industry. Design of the electric grid exacerbates the problem, as the grid was originally built to connect large individual generation units, and deliver the energy they generated to large population centers around the country. Midwestern states like Illinois–which received 4.98% of it’s energy from wind in 2014–have been working to increase investment in and use of renewable energy like wind, but they continue to face the problem of adequate transmission.
In much of the Midwest, we still lack the suitable transmission to connect renewable energy resources that are often in rural areas to the larger grid. New investment in the electric grid must go hand-in-hand with renewable energy investment, allowing clean and renewable energy to be delivered to customers across the Midwest. New projects like the Grain Belt Express project must be considered as a way to provide a path from where renewable energy is generated to consumers.
Renewable Energy and Transmission
With the advent of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), utilities and power providers seek out new energy generation to replace carbon-intensive sources, with the overall goal of reducing carbon emissions. For states to comply with the plan, they will need to identify renewable energy resources and insure that those sources have a reliable connection to the electric grid, and that new transmission development keeps up with renewable energy development.
Because the timeline for transmission development can often run much longer—between 5 and 15 years in many cases—than renewable energy generation facilities, planning of new transmission must try to forecast the future needs of the electric grid. According to the Department of Energy’s Wind Vision report, effectively integrating wind energy into the resource mix of utilities will require that sufficient transmission is built out to meet the needs of new or potential renewable energy generation. In fact, lack of transmission has already led to development delays as several proposals have been trapped in the transmission access queue.
The American Wind Energy Association’s Wind Industry Fourth Quarter 2014 Market Report noted that there is currently 65,879 megawatts (MW) of installed wind energy capacity across 39 states and Puerto Rico, and over 12,700 MW of new wind energy generation under construction. In fact, wind energy accounted for 31 percent of all new electricity generation installed over the last five years.
To meet the goals of the Clean Power Plan, states will require access to local and regional renewable energy resources. Without the transmission connections for these resources, states like Illinois will be limited in their options to address the requirements under the Clean Power Plan.
Local Community Input Essential for Proper Siting
Feedback from local stakeholders is one of the most useful tools in the transmission siting and development process. Comments provided by local communities and landowners offer a unique perspective that developers can’t obtain anywhere else. Developers must take the time to gather this feedback and integrate it, using this input to avoid sensitive areas. Likewise, it is important that regulators and state officials take the time to consider the input of local communities when examining these projects, providing a basis for their decision-making.
One specific area where local input is especially helpful is in the avoidance of sensitive areas. Although developers attempt to avoid these areas, sometimes it isn’t possible to entirely route a project around them. Local communities can provide insight into mitigation practices for these areas, or potential alternatives for routs. This is also true for residences and community buildings, which can be overlooked early in the development process. Proximity of transmission lines to these areas is an important consideration that regulators and developers must make, and any final route must reflect such an effort.
The electric power transmission network was not designed to penetrate areas of the Midwest that are brimming with wind energy potential. Planning new transmission to serve these areas is essential to keep pace with new renewable development, and insure that completed projects can deliver power to consumers. However, it is important that these projects are sited in a way that works alongside affected communities and landowners, and achieves an outcome that meets the needs of all stakeholders involved.