October 20, 2011

Virginia: Wind clears the way for greener grid

Wind generators or windmills are sprouting up all over the United States.

They're part of a growing move to expand the use of renewable energy sources, such as wind and the sun, to produce electricity.

Examples are everywhere around the country, and Virginia is aiming to be one of the renewable-energy leaders as part of its vision to become the Energy Capital of the East Coast. That vision will be a focus of the discussion at the second annual Governor's Conference on Energy in Richmond.

For example, the state established an Offshore Wind Development Authority in 2010 to help support offshore wind project development. Earlier this year, Gov. Bob McDonnell signed a package of bills designed to spur the development of renewable energy in the state, including solar energy demonstration programs and the opportunity for renewable project financing through the Virginia Resources Authority.

As part of a study by my organization, PJM Interconnection, on integrating new renewable energy resources into the electric system, it was determined that Virginia has the potential for significant amounts of wind energy capacity, both onshore and offshore. The state also has opportunities for utility-scale and rooftop solar installations as well.

It is a fact that renewables have taken off in the United States. Between 2005 and 2009, electricity from renewable sources grew more than 15 percent — and it is expected to grow even more rapidly.

But the expansion of these clean and green resources — and the environmental benefits and economic growth they promise — could be stymied by existing limitations on the planning process for integrating them into the nation's electrical grid.

"The grid" may be an unfamiliar term to many. But it's an apt way to describe the electric system.

Our transmission system operates like the network of local roads and multilane interstates. High-voltage transmission lines deliver electricity over long distances to distributors, like the local public utility, which reduces the voltage and sends it over lines to customers.

Most of this system was designed and built decades ago. New generation resources are always needed, and today most of the proposed projects use wind and solar energy. New transmission lines will be needed to move electricity from renewable sources — many in remote locations, far from existing transmission lines — across multiple states to the urban areas where the power is needed.

In the case of offshore wind projects, located miles off the coast, lines will be needed to move the electricity from the generators to the onshore grid. A new approach to grid planning is necessary to address these situations. Reforming transmission planning will enable renewable sources to more fully meet the nation's electricity needs.

For PJM and other transmission planning organizations, the challenge is that rules generally restrict the transmission-planning to maintaining grid reliability and relieving bottlenecks on the system that raise electricity prices.

In short, the existing rules for transmission planning don't incorporate public-policy objectives like expanding the use of renewable energy. PJM and its members are considering changes in the planning process and will submit them to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The FERC, which provides regulatory oversight for regional transmission organizations (RTOs), recognizes the problem and recently issued an order related to what can be done to ease building transmission lines that aren't strictly for reliability and providing for those who benefit from those lines to help pay for them.

That's not to say that transmission isn't getting built, such as the 500-kilovolt (kV) Trans-Allegheny Interstate Line (TrAIL) project from western Pennsylvania across West Virginia to Northern Virginia that went into service earlier this year. The line was authorized under current transmission-planning standards to address the likelihood of future reliability issues. TrAIL proved its value this summer, providing the capability to import an additional 1,000 megawatts of electricity — the equivalent of a major nuclear plant — to meet consumer demand.

TrAIL's completion also is making it possible to rebuild the Mount Storm-Doubs 500-kV transmission line, which is a critical element of the grid in Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland. The line has been in service for more than 40 years.

Transmission planning may not sound exciting, but the stakes are high. Consumers and businesses will face an unreliable electric grid and higher electricity prices — and renewable-energy goals could be hindered — if not enough transmission is built.

That's why effective planning by grid organizations is so important — to ensure that the transmission required to meet reliability, economic and public-policy goals is carefully considered and then built to be ready when needed.

Reforming the process for planning and building transmission now will enable power to be delivered where it's needed tomorrow.


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