Red-state grid operator plans wind, solar surge

Source: By Rod Kuckro, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Southwest Power Pool plans to have as much as 37,000 megawatts of wind and solar generation in the next 10 years, placing it in the vanguard of the nation’s grid operators transitioning to a new energy economy.

The projections, which depend on the construction of 44 new transmission projects, cover a 14-state area of the United States that has few renewable energy goals, hosts some of the nation’s biggest coal reserves and backed President Trump by a wide margin in the 2016 election.

SPP’s forecast punctuates a trend across red-state America toward replacing old and costly coal-fired power plants with low-cost renewables.

And in this region, which ranges from North Texas to the Canadian border, the driver is less a clean energy ethos than economics — wind and solar produce low-cost electricity and will contribute to lower customer rates, based on SPP forecasts.

“The majority of new generation that we’re projecting to be added is wind and solar compared to conventional resources,” said Lanny Nickell, SPP’s senior vice president for engineering, in an interview.

Today, SPP has about 22,000 MW of wind capacity connected to its system, which has just shy of 90,000 MW of total generation, Nickell said.

Current solar capacity is minuscule by comparison, at less than 200 MW, he said.

But “in the 10-year-out planning study that we just finished, we’re projecting up to 7,000 MW of solar and 30,000 MW of wind,” Nickell said.

If built, those resources could produce 35% to 40% of energy on the SPP system, he said.

The belief in wind and solar is evidenced in the grid operator’s so-called generator interconnection queue. That amounts to a list of potential projects, most of which may never be developed for market reasons.

At the beginning of October, the queue included 47,473 MW of wind projects, 28,429 MW of solar projects, 6,776 MW of energy storage projects and 331 MW of gas projects. There were no coal or nuclear projects.

SPP’s members include investor-owned utilities, electric cooperatives, municipal utilities, independent power producers and state agencies that serve more than 18 million customers across a mostly rural service territory.

SPP outlined the scenarios under which the renewable power could be built in its 2019 Integrated Transmission Planning Assessment Report approved by its board of directors last week.

Carrying out the plan requires construction of projects across the SPP footprint, including 166 miles of high-voltage 345-kilovolt transmission lines.

“These upgrades will facilitate reliable delivery of lower-cost generation,” SPP said, and “reduce wholesale energy congestion costs by 21% on average, providing estimated future net savings of up to 23 cents on average monthly residential bills in SPP.”

Nickell said the grid operator faces “congestion” on its system today that can block lowest-cost energy generation from being delivered. Congestion occurs when transmission lines are overloaded, preventing electricity from reaching consumers. Adding more transmission capacity at key points on the grid can alleviate the problem, he said.

‘More coming’

In past years, SPP has been “fairly conservative about expectations regarding growth of renewables,” Nickell said.

The 2019 plan “has done a much better job than we have ever done in terms of projecting the kind of growth in renewables that [is] more likely to be observed,” he said.

Because forecasts can take up to two years to complete, SPP had previously found that it had “either come close to surpassing or already surpassed” projections about wind growth, Nickell said.

He said “very risk-averse” SPP members were largely responsible for past conservative forecasts, particularly when it came to predicting renewables. Members aren’t always excited about building transmission for renewable generation they haven’t purchased, he added.

But the SPP board approval of the transmission plan in the changing generation mix it foresees is “due to competitive pressures” felt by SPP members, sometimes from their customers, Nickell said.

Nickell also said he doesn’t think the addition of wind and solar is a threat to grid reliability because of SPP’s diverse generation mix.

“When intermittent generation all of a sudden begins to decline — when the wind stops blowing or, in the case of solar, a cloud goes over and the energy output of those resources all of a sudden drops — having something else on the system that can quickly pick up is very valuable,” he said.

“And right now, those quick-start [natural] gas generators serve that purpose. In the future, will it be batteries? Maybe,” he said.

Nickell said he knows there’s interest in adding even more renewables to the grid.

“We can’t just stop, rest on our laurels, so to speak, and think we’ve done enough,” he said. “There’s more coming.”