Transmission needed as companies turn to renewables — report

Source: Sam Mintz, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Auto giant General Motors Co. is increasingly leaning on renewable energy for its dozens of facilities around the world. Later this year, wind turbines in Ohio and Illinois will come online, fully powering the company’s manufacturing plants in Ohio and Indiana.

“By mid- to late 2018, 20 percent of our global footprint will come from renewables,” said Rob Threlkeld, GM’s global manager of renewable energy. “It provides direct bottom-line benefits. It’s low-price and stable, both of which are very valuable.”

But as more companies like GM turn to wind and solar, renewable energy advocates are warning policymakers and grid operators that more investment in transmission infrastructure is needed to match the growing demand.

That’s the central argument of a report commissioned by the Wind Energy Foundation and released this week.

Since 2013, U.S. corporations have signed long-term agreements to buy nearly 9 gigawatts of wind and solar power, which is equal to the output of more than 16 conventional power plants, according to the report.

But with 88 percent of the national potential for wind power and 56 percent of utility-scale solar potential concentrated in 15 states between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River, there is a disconnect between supply and the demand. That region makes up 30 percent of projected electricity load in 2050.

“This finding suggests that future transmission is needed to export this electricity from this high-production region to the growing demand outside of this region,” wrote the report’s authors at David Gardiner and Associates.

John Kostyack, executive director of the Wind Energy Foundation, said in an interview that the growth in large institutional buyers of renewables is “one of the most encouraging business stories” he has seen in a long time.

“Major companies like GM, Proctor & Gamble, Google and others are discovering that they can deliver a promise to their customers at the same time they improve their bottom line,” he said. “We think that’s really exciting, but we also are fearful that the continuation of this trend is at risk.”

Kostyack said that currently, there is no process in place for building adequate transmission to meet that demand.

“We want to raise awareness of the challenge we have, the backlog of infrastructure build in this country,” he said.

One key problem: Transmission planners, including regional grid operators, are typically not incorporating the “rising tide” of corporate renewable energy demand into plans to build new transmission, the report says.

“[Regional transmission organizations] do not have a current practice of factoring in corporate demand into their planning processes. We sense that it’s largely because this is a voluntary commitment, not a legally mandated one,” said Kostyack.

Instead, they largely rely on predictions of customer demand and legal requirements to plan transmission.

Kostyack thinks that is not enough. “The corporate buyers have demonstrated that these aren’t empty promises,” he said.

The report recommends that corporate buyers push grid planners to upgrade and expand transmission lines, and that regional transmission organizations (RTOs) incorporate voluntary, large customer demand into their planning.

“We work with suppliers, with policymakers; utilities are now engaged, too,” said GM’s Threlkeld. “But RTOs are the next partner to engage in this process of, how do we grow clean renewable energy, which drives the price stability that corporations like GM look for.”