Utilities partner to add lines for wind energy in northern Iowa

Source: Written by Dan Piller, Des Moines Register • Posted: Monday, April 1, 2013

The owners of the two largest electric transmission systems in Iowa have plans to build more than 400 miles of transmission lines by 2017 to accommodate Iowa’s growing wind energy portfolio.

The projects by MidAmerican Energy of Des Moines and ITC Holdings, which owns and operates the electric transmission system serving Alliant Energy in Iowa, will hold public meetings this summer to discuss new lines that would extend from Jackson, Minn., and O’Brien County just west of Spencer through Mason City and Waterloo to near Independence in Buchanan County.

The new lines would help ease what has been the prime deficiency in an Iowa electricity system that otherwise has worked smoothly. Both utilities and customers have argued that the feverish building of Iowa’s wind capacity argues for an upgrade of the state’s electric transmission system.

While Iowa generates lots of wind power, the state often doesn’t have the transmission capacity to move the power to customers. For this reason, the 25 percent of the state’s electric-generating capacity that is wind powered often can’t be used because of transmission congestion. “The electricity needs a place to go,” said Jeff Eddy, planning manager for ITC Holdings.

He said the lines couldn’t be dedicated entirely to wind-generated electricity because, as he said, “electrons move around, and we can’t always be sure that some generated through coal or natural gas aren’t on the wires.”

But Eddy added, “there’s no question that we have a need to move the wind energy.”

The projects would be built in stages beginning next year, state regulators willing, through 2017. “Most of the lines would use existing right of way, which would make construction easier,” Eddy said.

MidAmerican Energy provides electricity to areas that include Des Moines, Waterloo, Iowa City, Sioux City, Fort Dodge and Council Bluffs. Its segments on the southern side of the expansion “will be designed to optimize wind generation placement and to allow for the regional delivery of renewable generation in Iowa,” according to a statement.

MidAmerican has just completed 1,000 megawatts of wind generation, mostly in western and northwest Iowa. The project brought MidAmerican’s total portfolio of wind generation to about 2,300 megawatts.

The lines would be 345 kilovolts, matching the largest transmission lines in the state. Iowa’s total wind generation capacity as of Jan. 1 is 5,137 megawatts, which trails Texas and California. On a customer per-capita basis, Iowa ranks first in the nation in wind generation.

Eddy briefed the Iowa Wind Energy Association meeting this week in Des Moines on the project, which is not a formal joint venture between ITC and MidAmerican but simply a cooperation common in the utility business.

“We connect our lines all the time,” Eddy said of ITC and MidAmerican. “We both need to upgrade, and we can put this together.”

ITC and MidAmerican both potentially have bigger irons in the transmission fire. Both have done preliminary plans for multi-state transmission lines that would ship Iowa’s surplus wind energy east of the Mississippi River.

So far those ideas have stayed on the drawing board, while organizers jump various federal and state regulatory hoops. A big step was taken a year ago when the Midwest Independent Transmission Operators System, or MISO, which oversees the electric transmission grid from Ohio through Iowa to Canada, approved the concept of “Multi Value Projects.”

Those projects cover newly designated transmission upgrades such as those proposed by MidAmerican and ITC. With MISO’s blessing, the utilities will be able to move forward more easily through regulatory and legal twists.

MISO, whose membership includes utilities and private generators and transmission operators such as ITC, sees wind energy as a crucial backup reserve for the Midwest’s electricity needs.

“Wind energy can be a way to meet future needs for reserve requirements,” Laura Rauch of MISO told the Iowa Wind Energy Association.