High-stakes debate: How to connect turbines to Mass. grid

Source: By David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Transmission companies are warning that Massachusetts won’t meet its offshore wind targets or even its long-term climate goals unless the state builds an independent network of power lines to serve turbines in nearby waters.

The idea of an independent network is set for discussion today at a technical conference hosted by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) in Boston.

East Coast states have so far awarded companies the dual rights to building turbines and connecting their power to the grid.

But offshore wind farms would produce far larger volumes than most onshore projects, and the East Coast has relatively few interconnection points capable of handling that load.

Proponents of an independent network maintain that’s a recipe for crisis and want to break transmission rights into a separate, competitive process; although most offshore turbine developers insist that would carry substantial risks of its own.

Utility regulators and grid operators across the Northeast are studying the problem, with Massachusetts the furthest into a formal review.

“Massachusetts is the first mover in the U.S. in looking at this,” said John Dalton, president of consultancy Power Advisory LLC, which submitted a white paper to DOER evaluating the risks and benefits of both approaches.

“I’ll be interested to see what the mood is in the room,” he said yesterday. “Will it be, ‘There’s an interesting opportunity here and it’s worth pursuing’? Or is it, ‘There’s a lot of risk here’?”

Offshore wind giants have contested the notion that a third-party transmission network is the safest option.

In Germany, an official decision to “decouple” transmission and generation early in the 2010s was a debacle. Power lines weren’t completed until well after turbines were ready to generate, causing project suspensions and revenue losses for turbine developers.

The likelihood of history repeating itself in the United States is “relatively high” given the long lead times for transmission permitting, wind developer Ørsted A/S and Eversource Energy, New England’s largest energy company and transmission builder, wrote in a Feb. 18 filing in Massachusetts.

Just the possibility of decoupling would likely hurt electricity consumers, too, they argued, because developers would raise the price of their power when bidding for contracts.

Uncertainties of this kind are widespread among commenters in Massachusetts, including from environmentalists and energy analysts.

Investors would need to see “appropriate protections in place,” Dalton said, or “it’ll significantly affect developers’ ability to finance their project.”

Still, the idea has some influential backers in Massachusetts, including state Attorney General Maura Healey (D), whose office sees it as a way to lower the cost of power lines for consumers.

Others, like the industry group Business Network for Offshore Wind, say it could limit the number of cable lines, resulting in fewer disturbances to local environments and fishermen.

The most prominent advocate, transmission developer Anbaric Development Partners, has lobbied aggressively in state capitals and kept up pressure on federal officials, who would have to grant permits, by presenting them with specific plans.

In a filing with DOER, Anbaric noted the centrality of offshore wind to New England’s collective goal of reducing emissions 80% by 2050.

“It will not be possible to reach this goal without planned, open-access transmission,” company founder and CEO Edward Krapels wrote.

After the construction of the first proposed wind farms, other projects would have to spend far more to connect to the grid, he added, meaning the industry “will grow in fits and starts, or not at all.”

If New England states tried to upgrade transmission on the fly, instead of planning a network in advance, it could take the better part of a decade to finish.

“Pausing offshore wind development for this long would hamstring [Massachusetts’] efforts to achieve climate goals,” Krapels wrote.

No ‘miracle alternative’

The Massachusetts discussions were sparked by a 2018 law that gave the state the option of holding auctions for transmission rights.

What it decides to do is likely to set a precedent for New England and other parts of the Northeast.

Dozens of gigawatts of offshore wind power will need to come online by 2050 across New England, according to an October report by the Brattle Group.

In a 2050 scenario envisioning a “balanced portfolio” of decarbonized power resources, the consultancy saw about 43 megawatts coming from offshore wind — more than 13 times what Massachusetts is targeting for 2035.

“It’s a critical piece, and there’s no obvious miracle alternative,” said Jürgen Weiss, a principal at Brattle, which is working with proponents of independent transmission in Massachusetts.

Land-based wind was unlikely to offer the same scale, given the difficulties of transporting massive turbines by road. Local opposition has blocked construction of power lines connecting to Canadian hydropower. And Massachusetts’ solar industry, at least, has grown fitfully, with new installations falling by 50% last year.

“If you screw up [offshore wind] — to use a technical term — there’s not something obvious that you can replace it with,” Weiss said.

For the state’s and region’s emission reduction goals, he said, “offshore wind will play a very major role. There’s very little doubt in my mind.”