Utility group to study Midwest carbon goals

Source: By Rod Kuckro, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, August 22, 2019

A consortium of 11 electric utilities in the Upper Midwest is studying what grid improvements are needed to accommodate state government and private-sector goals to sharply cut carbon emissions.

The “intent is to help policymakers and regulators really understand what could be potential operational issues that we need to address before we move toward a carbon-free trajectory to 2050,” said Priti Patel, vice president and chief transmission officer for Great River Energy, one of the utilities participating in the effort.

The coalition, known as CapX2020, has previously planned and built 800 miles of high-voltage transmission lines to enhance reliability and support the deployment of renewable energy, an initiative that dates back to 2006 and took nearly a decade to complete. The projects cost $2.1 billion and entailed four 345-kilovolt transmission lines in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin and a 230-kV line in northern Minnesota.

Those lines were finished “on time, in scope and within budget,” said Patel.

She likens the new endeavor, dubbed the CapX2050 Transmission Vision Study, to “getting the band back together.”

Great River is the second-largest electric utility in Minnesota, providing transmission and generation to 28 cooperatives.

The other CapX2020 utilities are all headquartered in Minnesota, Wisconsin or South Dakota, and are Central Municipal Power Agency/Services, the Dairyland Power Cooperative, Minnesota Power, Missouri River Energy Services, Otter Tail Power Co., Rochester Public Utilities, the Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency, WPPI Energy and Xcel Energy Inc.

Since the build-out of CapX2020, the “unique mix” of investor-owned utilities, nonprofit cooperatives and municipal entities has “come together often to talk about industry issues where there could be the greatest value in a collective effort,” Patel said.

A ‘first step’

Allen Gleckner, senior director of energy markets with Fresh Energy, a clean energy advocacy group in St. Paul, Minn., welcomed the news that utilities are considering the “very real” need for new infrastructure in the region.

“We’re seeing a ton of wind and solar development that needs transmission to get to market and to help states and utilities meet their decarbonization goals,” he said.

The current transmission system “has been built out to serve the old generation fleet of big, central station coal plants. It wasn’t designed for wind and solar, which are more spread out in areas that don’t have a ton of transmission now,” he said.

Patel agreed, noting that there are “pretty significant carbon-free goals being debated in Minnesota” and the surrounding states.

As operators of coal-fired plants close them down, “we expect the [generation] fleet to continue to transition, so we need to be prepared for whatever the collective fleet is going to look like in the Upper Midwest,” Patel said.

The new study, slated to be finished in the first quarter of 2020, is a “critical first step toward what we see as the eventual development of a comprehensive transmission system,” she added.

The aim is not to identify specific projects but rather more general corridors where the grid may need to be expanded.

And “every solution may not necessarily be a transmission solution,” Patel said, citing possibilities for long-duration energy storage should that technology come to fruition.

All of the CapX2020 members operate within the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, so any transmission planning will be coordinated with the grid operator, she said.

Gleckner pointed out that at MISO, “there’s been a lot of gridlock in their transmission planning, which has slowed it down.”

To reach renewable energy penetration levels of 50% to 80%, he said, grid operators should focus on enhancing “geographic diversity” among MISO members and those of adjacent transmission organizations, so “you can hit higher levels of wind and solar because of the integration ability” of large regional networks.

“Maybe it’s not windy in North Dakota at a certain time. But the statistical chance that it’s not windy in North Dakota and also not windy in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Missouri is very low,” Gleckner said.