Growth of wind power hampered by old Midwest grid

Source: By Trevor Graff — Bee Washington Bureau • Posted: Monday, August 5, 2013

WASHINGTON — The windswept prairies of the Midwest are undergoing an energy transformation the grid can’t handle.

Wind turbines tower over rural vistas in the heartland, where the clean energy source is becoming increasingly popular with utility companies that face state-mandated renewable energy standards. Unfortunately, the nation’s aging power grid is hampering those efforts.

At the end of last year, installed wind-generation capacity totaled 60 gigawatts nationwide — 5% of the nation’s production capacity — according to data from the U.S. Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Another 135 gigawatts of potential wind production awaits development and connection to the grid, according to industry data.

“There hasn’t been a lot of investment in the grid for the last two decades,” said Michael Goggin, a senior analyst at the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group. “We just don’t have a strong grid that’s built out in the parts of the country where there are a lot of wind resources.”

The transmission grid was built a generation ago for coal, nuclear and hydropower plants without renewable energy in mind. It makes transmission from wind farms in rural areas difficult and costly.

The shortfall in transmission capacity hasn’t gone unnoticed. Gil Bindewald, a project manager at the Department of Energy, said decision makers had to consider policy, technology and financing when dealing with transmission issues: “There is no silver bullet solution for effectively integrating renewable sources of energy such as wind onto the grid.”

The growth of the nation’s wind-power supply is evident on a remote stretch of Kansas Highway 23, where the spinning blades of wind turbines quickly surround motorists near the town of Cimarron. The site, which has 57 turbines spread over 16,000 acres of leased farmland, is capable of powering 40,000 homes with 131 megawatts of production.

But Duke Energy and Sumitomo Corp., which brought the project online in June 2012, face significant congestion as they try to bring that energy to the market.

Greg Wolf, the renewables president at Duke Energy, wouldn’t comment on the level of congestion, but he said the bottleneck was noticeable: “Because it’s new and because there’s variability in wind versus a traditional gas-fired unit, there’s been a learning curve here. “Not to mention the fact that we’ve added a large number of new megawatts at a quick pace.”

Wolf said deficiencies in the grid and differing state policies on placement of transmission lines are key causes of congestion.