The US Power Grid-A Challenge for Wind

As the outlook for U.S. energy sources continues to change, Emerson’s Alan Novak, Director of the Mining and Power industries, looks at the outlook for wind energy.

Emerson's Alan NovakAs highlighted in a recent New York Times article, Ideas to Bolster Power Grid Run Up Against the System’s Many Owners, the US power grid is a complicated, fragmented, multi-owner (>500) system faced with conflicting commercial and governmental interests.

Source: Geni.org, United States transmission grid, http://jimc.me/18sEw5R

Adding to the complexity, the grid is divided into multiple regions called Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs) with limited connectivity between them:

Source: ferc.gov, Regional Transmission Organizations (RTO)/Independent System Operators (ISO), http://jimc.me/18sEJ9d

So why are these characteristics a challenge for the US wind power industry?

One of the main issues is that the best wind assets are not located near the largest demand:

Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Wind Resources and Transmission Lines, http://jimc.me/1aYtYwe

Central Kansas has some of the best potential wind resources in the US but there is currently no transmission capacity to move it where it is needed. The highly variable nature of wind power also presents a challenge in trying to match its supply with variable demand. As noted in the NY Times article, there are already times in the Pacific Northwest and Midwest when wind generated electricity exceeds local demand but there is no way to move it where it is needed.

At least in the short term the US Energy Information Agency (EIA) projects that electricity generation will remain largely status quo, with the bulk of US electricity coming from coal:

Source: Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook, http://jimc.me/Ov6WTg

What does this all mean for the wind power industry? With the many competing interests involved in the US transmission system it does not appear that new transmission lines or improved system interconnections will be available anytime soon. Only time will tell what impact this will have on new wind development.

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