Clogged power grid is blocking renewables. Here’s a fix

Source: By Jeffrey Tomich, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, February 25, 2021

Twice as much renewable generation could be added in a pair of wind-rich states during the next few years with modest investments in technology that boosts efficiency on the power grid, according to a new study.

The study, released yesterday by the Watt Coalition, a group of six transmission technology providers, found that more than 5,200 megawatts of wind and solar capacity could be connected in Kansas and Oklahoma by 2025. As it is now, only 2,670 MW is expected to be added because of congestion on the transmission grid.

Just as a clogged city freeway can frustrate drivers, electric grid congestion has become a growing obstacle for renewable energy developers as they seek to bring new projects online.

Grid congestion is becoming a growing problem in the Great Plains. With renewable energy developers required to shoulder the cost of transmission upgrades, wind farms and solar projects face an uphill battle to connect to the grid and ship clean energy to the rest of the country.

The Watt Coalition analysis by the Brattle Group, a consulting firm, further showed that deployment of so-called grid-enhancing technologies would produce $175 million in annual benefits in the form of lower electricity costs, or almost twice the $90 million capital investment in hardware and software, meaning a payback of about six months.

The study was sponsored by some of the nation’s largest renewable developers, including EDF Renewables, NextEra Energy Resources and Duke Energy Corp., as well as technical consultants GridLab.

Authors of the report said that although the case study focused on two states with high renewable energy resources, it shows potential nationally for advanced grid technology.

A rough calculation in the analysis shows grid-enhancing technology could yield $5 billion in energy savings across the country. It could also provide carbon reductions that equal more than the total emissions for all new cars sold annually in the United States.

The report also calculated more than $1 billion in tax revenues and lease payments that could be unlocked if more renewable electricity is able to run across the grid.

The study focuses on a number of available grid technologies. Dynamic line ratings, for example, use sensors and analytics to optimize transmission lines and enable them to carry more electricity in cooler conditions.

Other technologies include advanced power flow controls and hardware that helps push and pull power to alternate lines with spare capacity. Topology software also helps route electricity to avoid congestion, much like the popular GPS navigation app Waze, which helps drivers avoid traffic congestion.

Clearing the queues

Although the Watt Coalition study suggests grid enhancements are an obvious solution, it also raises a question: Why aren’t utilities and other transmission owners pursuing them already?

Rob Gramlich, executive director of the Watt Coalition, said the reason is twofold. The first he calls the iPhone effect. Just as consumers couldn’t envision how useful smartphones would be until they actually used them, utilities haven’t fully realized the benefits of grid technology because deployment has been so limited and most companies have no experience with them.

The incentive structure is also a hurdle because utilities are more motivated to pursue larger, more capital-intensive transmission build-outs that will generate greater returns, Gramlich said.

Regardless of the reason, Nora Brownell, a former member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said the cost of not improving grid efficiency is hurting consumers.

“The economic cost of congestion of dysfunctional and delayed interconnection queues is enormous,” she said on a webinar to discuss the study. “While these technologies provide a number of solutions, they also have significant impact on reducing costs that ultimately get passed onto ratepayers.”

Beside being a concern for consumers, it’s also not helping make the grid as resilient as it should be in the face of more frequent extreme weather and natural disasters, such as the California wildfires or the deep freeze that left millions without power in Texas last week.

“These climate events are not black swan events,” Brownell said.

‘More clean energy, not less’

Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, said the renewable interconnection backlog is slowing the transition to cleaner sources of energy and hampering efforts to make the grid more resilient to extreme conditions.

“The crisis in Texas demonstrates the need for more clean energy, not less,” she said. “A next step is to clear out these [interconnection] queues and get zero-emission electricity to as many homes and businesses as we can.”

The House committee last year issued a sprawling, 538-page climate action plan that urged adoption of a federal clean electricity standard, a carbon price and national net-zero emissions goal (Greenwire, June 29, 2020).

The plan also said Congress should direct FERC to report on progress in encouraging deployment of advanced transmission technologies and to provide performance-based incentives for investments that improve the capacity and efficiency of the bulk electric transmission system.

In the states that were a focus of the study, the interconnection queue is managed by the Southwest Power Pool (SPP), the regional grid operator for 14 states from Texas’ Panhandle to the Canadian border.

A spokesman for the grid operator didn’t respond to a request for comment.

SPP is regulated by FERC. And although there’s a push for Congress to help spur investments through stimulus legislation or by funding existing provisions already in the law, industry sources agree that action by federal regulators is the quickest path to help drive investment in available technology to help further grid expansion.

FERC Chairman Richard Glick has already signaled that improving access to carbon-free energy and bolstering grid resilience in the face of an increasing threat from climate change are issues at the top of his agenda.

The study identified several pathways for FERC to help, including requiring available technologies to be required in transmission planning and creating incentives for deployment.

And while technology can help buy time for development of new lines, there remains a need for significant investment in new physical infrastructure to move energy from windy and sunny areas of the country to large cities where demand is concentrated.

“This does not mitigate the need to upgrade and install new infrastructure,” said Rudy Wynter, an executive at transmission owner National Grid.