The waiting list for proposed wind energy projects in the state is 612 years. But changes are afoot.
To anyone who wants to join the wind energy movement, Ryan Wolf says: Get in line.
Wolf, of Le Sueur, Minn., has been waiting almost two years for the go-ahead to build 27 wind turbines in the southwest part of the state.
It’s anyone’s guess how much longer he’ll be waiting, given a backlog of applications that technically could take more than 600 years to clear at the federal agency that stands between him and the renewable energy marketplace.
“The queue is the biggest problem we’re struggling with,” agreed Clair Moeller, a vice president at that gatekeeper agency in St. Paul, the Midwest Independent Transmission System (Midwest ISO).
While the national mood has shifted to embrace renewable energy, and states including Minnesota have pledged increased usage, conditions on the ground are not making it easy. Developers point to shortages of the wind turbines, engineers to run them and transmission lines to carry the electricity they produce.
But many say the biggest immediate problem is the bottleneck at the regional agencies of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission – Midwest ISO, in 15 Upper Midwest states – that give projects permission to connect to existing power lines.
And the Midwest is in the worst shape, they say, because its windy plains are prompting more project proposals than anywhere else.
Moeller’s staff has adapted new procedures – one is clustering several proposals into a single study – so they expect to be able to clear the queue in 50 years instead of 600. And this spring he will ask federal regulators to approve more adaptations to further speed the process.
But every passing year drives up the cost of the projects – which is passed on to consumers. And the backlog stands in the way of Minnesota’s pledge to get 25 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025.
“You simply can’t get there on time,” Moeller said.
Midwest ISO is like a combined roadway planner and traffic cop for the 94,000 miles of power lines within its borders. Moeller runs one of its two central offices out of a one-story, warehouse-type building in a residential St. Paul neighborhood.
Engineers there control the minute-to-minute activity of every utility that sends electricity through the area’s power grid.
The agency also vets all the requests by new power projects to connect to the already congested transmission system.
Each request takes about two years to process, because Midwest ISO’s obligations include locating any point along the grid that’s already maxed out – even hundreds of miles away. Then it has to put a dollar figure on the work needed at those points – something similar to adding two lanes to an overloaded four-lane highway – and then give that bill to the developer.
Federal regulators set up that process as first-come, first-served, in part because everything is so interconnected. Also, by regulation, all requests must be handled one at a time. So, technically, Moeller’s staff should spend two years on the project at the top of the list before proceeding to the second one, for two years, and so on. That comes to 612 years for the 306 requests now in the Midwest ISO queue.
The system functioned better when it handled the few, big coal or nuclear power plants that came along. But wind projects are small, and there are many more of them – three of every four proposals now on the list. And they take about as long to study as do the big projects.
Don’t mess with Texas
Texas has found a better way, in the view of Rob Gramlich, policy director at the American Wind Energy Association, a Washington-based industry group.
That state, which is an ISO unto itself, has completely separated grid issues from its vetting process. So, when Texas ISO processes power project applications, all it has to price for them is their “driveways” – the new power lines to run between them and the grid.
That helped Texas connect three times more wind energy than any other state last year, Gramlich said.
By H. J. Cummings
27 January 2008
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding