Wind generators have been the Rodney Dangerfields of the electricity market. They’re unreliable, traditional utilities say. And expensive.
So when Rob Gramlich, policy director of the American Wind Energy Association, got up to address the fifth Kansas Electric Transmission Summit on Friday, he seemed to be suppressing a smile. A previous presenter had just dropped a couple pretty stunning figures: about 13,000 megawatts of wind projects have been queued up for study, and the total could reach 40,000 to 60,000 megawatts in the near future.
To put that in perspective: total peak demand in the heat of summer is only a little over 40,000 megawatts.
“The interconnection queue gives us a ticket to these discussions,” Gramlich said. “We didn’t mean to scare you with all those megawatts.”
The message that emerged from the all-day conference was that growth of breathtaking proportions is expected in wind farms – “growing exponentially” was the term used frequently – and the current electric grid will have to be made much more robust if that power is to be delivered to homes.
“We’ve got to get a grid to move this,” said Jay Caspary, director of engineering at the Southwest Power Pool, the organization that manages and oversees planning for the electric grid in Kansas and parts of Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Nebraska and New Mexico.
Speakers at the meeting at the Dole Institute of Politics included all the players who set and implement policies governing power generation and distribution – legislators, staff and members of the Kansas Electric Transmission Authority, Southwest Power Pool staff and executives, members and staff of the Kansas Corporation Commission, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, staff from the U.S. Department of Energy, representatives of the state’s leading electric utilities, and energy consultants and lobbyists.
“We need a lot more transmission in this country,” said Philip Moeller, a commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. “It’s catch-up time.”
Earnie Lehman, president of Hays-based Midwest Energy and vice chairman of Kansas Electric Transmission Authority, told the audience that denial of the permit needed to build 1,400 megawatts of coal-fired generation at Holcomb was going to stifle development of new electric transmission in Kansas.
But the message from many of the experts was that wind development in the Midwest, especially Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, is growing explosively – with or without new coal-fired power plants – and the next order of business is to figure out how to ensure that the electric grid is fortified to serve needs for the foreseeable future.
Kansas has seen virtually no new high-voltage transmission lines in 20 years, and one reason is that allocation of those costs hasn’t kept up with the changing energy market.
“We need a whole new method of thinking how we build transmission,” said Jim Eckelberger, chairman of the Southwest Power Pool. When many of the rules were put into place, the company that generated the electricity was usually the company that also owned the transmission lines.
Now there is the prospect of one company generating the electricity, another owning the transmission lines, and the power being sold to yet another company’s electricity customers.
A huge stumbling block for wind development is that the cost of connecting the wind farm to the electric grid can fall to the local utility. Most of the wind potential in Kansas is in rural areas served by small electric cooperatives, who therefore could be forced to underwrite connection to the network even though they may not use any of the electricity.
Several presenters said that the nation needs to move toward a “postage stamp” model for allocating the cost of building transmission infrastructure – the capital costs would be allocated uniformly to power carried by the lines, regardless of how far it goes or who ends up buying it.
Tom Stuchlick, an executive of Topeka-based Westar Energy, showed how using extra-high voltage lines can, in the long run, be significantly cheaper and more reliable. A 765 kilovolt line can carry six times the current of a 365 kilovolt line, he said.
But the traditional approach to sizing transmission lines has been to choose the minimum needed, since larger capacity lines have greater initial costs. Once the lines are built, they tend to define future decisions about generation and transmission.
Eckelberger pointed out that only 10 percent of the final retail cost of electricity is for transmission. The option that is cheapest in the short term isn’t necessarily the best, he said.
“I think we have to get over that,” he said. “It’s the dime controlling the buck. It makes no sense. How cheap do you want to go?”
By Duane Schrag
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