Transmission Traffic Jam Holding up Renewables

December 15, 2019

Transmission is the key technology for broad-based adoption of renewable energy in the US. A 2016 Nature paper underlined this point.


In August, two wind farm developers quietly withdrew their requests to tie into the Midwest power grid.

NextEra Energy Inc. and Southern Power Co. filed the notices with regulators in Minnesota and North Dakota, respectively. The documents didn’t draw much attention. Developers routinely enter the Midcontinent Independent System Operator’s (MISO) interconnection queue and later drop out if projects aren’t feasible.

But renewable energy advocates in the region say the projects belong to a much larger group of wind and solar developments that have also dropped requests to plug into MISO’s system. And the reason they surrendered their place in line — grid congestion — is a red flag for thousands of megawatts of projects still waiting for a chance to connect.

The Clean Grid Alliance — which includes renewable developers, environmental groups, turbine maker Vestas Wind Systems A/S and Google LLC — says transmission congestion threatens to dramatically slow renewable energy development. And that could have a ripple effect that goes far beyond keeping the lights on.

“I think there’s extreme urgency,” said Allen Gleckner, senior director of energy markets and regulatory affairs at St. Paul, Minn.-based Fresh Energy, a clean energy advocacy group and member of the Clean Grid Alliance. “It’s getting to a crisis point.”

Wind farms have provided revenue for farmers and other landowners who get lease payments from hosting turbines, and local governments have reaped millions from property taxes and benefited from new jobs, said Beth Soholt, the alliance’s executive director.

Longer term, a slowdown in renewable development could also have implications for efforts by state and local governments, utilities, and companies seeking to meet increasingly ambitious carbon reduction goals.

Gleckner and Soholt agree there are ways to more efficiently use existing transmission capacity and ease the current crunch. But MISO and its members should still begin planning for grid upgrades, they say.

“There’s no getting around the fact that we’re going to need serious transmission expansion,” Gleckner said.

That need was driven home in recent months as high transmission upgrade costs forced developers to pull projects out of the MISO interconnection queue.

Of 5,000 megawatts of wind and solar projects in MISO’s western region that were part of a group being studied for interconnection, all but 250 MW had withdrawn as of Dec. 1, according to the alliance. And it’s unlikely those projects will move forward because they would require $100 million in transmission upgrades, the group said.

Soholt said grid congestion has been a growing concern in MISO’s western region that includes Minnesota, Iowa, parts of the Dakotas and western Wisconsin — a windy area where renewable energy development has flourished over the last decade.

But the withdrawal of projects that were part of this group has highlighted the need to begin working on both shorter- and longer-term solutions, she said, especially because some developers already had contracts in place to sell the output.

“This last group of projects was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Soholt said. “We just finally hit a wall.”

The group of projects included Southern Power’s 200-MW Ruso wind farm in North Dakota. The company withdrew from the MISO queue after an engineering study showed the project, estimated to cost $250 million, would require $500 million in transmission upgrades.

Southern Power, a unit of Atlanta-based utility holding company Southern Co., told the North Dakota Public Service Commission that it is looking for a new interconnection point for the project.

NextEra likewise is looking for an alternative connection point for its 200-MW Dodge County wind project in south-central Minnesota. For now, the project and its related 23 miles of transmission are on hold.

Unlike the Ruso project, which didn’t yet have a power purchase agreement in place to sell the output, the Dodge County project was already contracted to a group of Minnesota municipal utilities, according to filings with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.

No one disputes that transmission capacity is becoming constrained in MISO’s western region, even after factoring in a planned multibillion-dollar build-out of new high-voltage lines. The issue is what to do about it.

Large transmission lines are typically too costly for developers of a single wind or solar project to justify. And there’s currently no process within MISO to evaluate how to share costs for major projects among renewable developers and utilities, which would also benefit from improved reliability and grid efficiency.

Any proposal that allocates costs and benefits among MISO members would also likely ignite a battle among states, utilities and consumer groups over who pays and how much.

That was the case with the last big MISO transmission build-out, which was approved before the grid operator expanded its footprint to include parts of Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

MISO spokeswoman Allison Bermudez acknowledged that transmission capacity in the grid operator’s western region is “limited” and that costs of interconnecting new generation have gone up.

“Faced with high upgrade costs, most developers choose to drop out instead of proceeding,” she said in an emailed response to questions. “This should not be a surprise, typically about 20% of projects that enter go all the way through.”

Officials for the Carmel, Ind.-based grid operator declined interview requests.

Asked if there’s a need for MISO to reform its transmission study process to allow for cost sharing for large new lines, Bermudez said, “We are currently looking into this.”

Utilities and regulators, too, have acknowledged the transmission squeeze.

Julie Pierce, vice president of strategy and planning for Minnesota Power, said the grid in Western MISO states is undergoing a significant transformation as coal plants shut down, replaced by cleaner energy sources that often require transmission.

“The grid is now getting full, and we’re seeing those pinch points,” Pierce said, noting that transmission upgrade costs seen by project developers are a signal that more transmission capacity is needed.

Minnesota Power is among the utilities in the region overhauling their generating fleets to cut carbon emissions.

The Duluth, Minn.-based utility plans to get 50% of its energy from renewable resources by 2021 from about the current 30%.

A key part of those plans is the Great Northern Transmission Line, a 225-mile, 500-kilovolt transmission project that will carry Canadian hydropower from the Minnesota-Manitoba border to near Grand Rapids, Minn.

The utility also repurposed a transmission line formerly used to move electricity from coal-fired power plants in North Dakota to Minnesota to instead carry wind energy from new wind farms, Pierce said.

While Minnesota Power doesn’t have carbon or renewable energy goals beyond 2021, other utilities do, and they will undoubtedly require more transmission.

For instance, in its long-range plan filed with the Minnesota PUC earlier this year, Xcel Energy Inc. cited “a clear need for more collaboration to enable transmission capability to … facilitate carbon free objectives.”

‘Doable’ changes

MISO’s Western states have some of the nation’s best wind resources, helping spur thousands of megawatts of wind energy development over the past decade.

The wind boom has been enabled by an unprecedented build-out of new transmission over the same period.

A group of 11 utilities from Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas completed a $2.1 billion portfolio of new transmission projects just two years ago. The initiative, dubbed CapX2020, added 800 miles of high-voltage transmission.

MISO is in the final stages of completing its $6.6 billion “multi-value” transmission expansion across the grid operator’s northern and central states — a portfolio of 17 projects that enabled 25,000 MW of new wind development to come online, bolstering reliability and facilitating state economic and public policy objectives.

Construction of the last of those projects — the 100-mile Cardinal-Hickory Creek line across southwest Wisconsin to Iowa — has yet to begin and already renewable developers are feeling the pressure of grid congestion.

Today, there are 156 projects representing 23.6 gigawatts of new generation waiting to tie into MISO’s western planning area. Much of it is wind, but there’s nearly as much solar generation in the queue.

How many of those projects come online, though, ultimately depends on new transmission capacity.

“There is tremendous support for additional renewable energy development, both at the local and the state level, and we are confident in future demand for these low-cost projects, both from the utility sector as well from the commercial and industrial sector,” Chris Kunkle, senior manager of government and regulatory affairs for Charlottesville, Va.-based Apex Clean Energy, said in an email.

“Unfortunately, without expanding the transmission grid, the opportunity for utility-scale renewable projects is quite limited in the region,” he said.

Apex and other developers and advocates, including the Clean Grid Alliance and the American Wind Energy Association, said they’re working to raise awareness with state policymakers, including the Midwestern Governors Association, which has made transmission planning a priority issue.

The same 11 Upper Midwest utilities that partnered on the CapX2020 expansion have reunited to look at what grid improvements are needed to accommodate longer-term carbon goals. The CapX2050 study, expected early next year, won’t prescribe specific transmission projects but will try to better define system constraints that may inhibit carbon-free resources over the next few decades.

And MISO itself has begun modeling more aggressive renewable energy adoption scenarios as part of its existing transmission planning process — a vision more closely aligned with utility goals and corporate demand.

Ultimately, advocates said the issue comes down to a matter of will and leadership among MISO and its membership.

“It’s hard but doable,” Soholt said. “You just need someone who can lead through and map out how do we accommodate all of these technical, political, economic issues.”

6 Responses to “Transmission Traffic Jam Holding up Renewables”

  1. J4Zonian Says:

    To allow such petty, parochial squabbling to block progress on the most important and urgent project in history is yet another sign of how depraved the US is. Our epitaph is likely to be the yips of jackals fighting over scraps of gristle as the flames rise in the distance beyond the bridge.

    Given that approval of more wind and solar and government help for it runs at 80-90% in the US, and there are already transmission lines for coal, gas and nukes all over the country, some of which could come down as those failing polluters are closed… I have to wonder how much of the opposition is astroturfed. Certainly Koch Industries and ALEC are the origin of a lot of Midwestern utility policies.

    While a lot of the solutions have to be local, and some of this can be solved with interstate actions and agreements, in the end it can’t be done without huge governmental investment in an upgraded state of the art national smart grid, and national plans for how, where and what to do to replace fossil fuels.

    • The new wind installations are being built in areas which do not have long distance transmission capacity because they have not been sources of electrical power before. If new coal or gas plants were being built in the same areas, the same problems would arise. This is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse. In the rush to expand wind power, the considerable investment in high voltage, long distance transmission lines to get the power to market has been overlooked.

      • J4Zonian Says:

        I think we all knew the part pointed out by your first 2 sentences.

        But the rush to develop wind and solar power—and other clean safe renewable energy resources—comes from the desire to allow civilization to survive. Which means it’s not nearly rushed enough. When such projects are planned and carried out by sane governments with jurisdiction over a wide enough area, the cart and the horse arrive in just the right order. Obviously, no one has “overlooked” anything; political opposition involving the fanatical ideology of denial has bolloxed sensible plans all over, but especially in the Untied States. I strongly suspect it’s orchestrated by the likes of ALEC, and the kind of people insane enough to turn an Ohio bill to help renewables into one to hurt efficiency and renewables and help coal and nukes–IOW, Republicans.

  2. Don Osborn Says:

    Key take away: “Longer term, a slowdown in renewable development [due to a lack of adequate transmission system] could also have implications for efforts by state and local governments, utilities, and companies seeking to meet increasingly ambitious carbon reduction goals. ”

    While this focuses on Midwest, the key point is universal. Transmission upgrades are expensive and take a long time to accomplish. Distributed (“Rooftop”) solar (and now or soon solar+storage) is neither and clearly reduces the need for transmission upgrades and the like. The utilities trying to curtail distributed solar is unconscionable. Distributed solar is about 1/3 of total solar and requires none of the system upgrades central station, utility scale solar requires. We need BOTH to respond to the crisis we are facing. While when ALL costs AND benefits are accounted for, distributed solar is clearly cost effective and a benefit to the whole grid (again esp as solar+storage takes off) it is SAD that it has to be cost effective to be supported. Utility economists would determine that on a present cost basis the world is not worth saving!!

    • Gingerbaker Says:

      Congratulations – you win the Reflexive Distributed Solar Advocate Award of the day! Your prize, should you decide to claim it, is your freedom to pay huge sums of money out of your own pocket to privatize your own energy welfare while there has never been a greater need for public investment in our energy infrastructure.

      Part of the reason the US trails miserably in the development of transmission lines and an upgraded smarter grid are these related sentiments – that our energy future can be laissez-faire instead of centrally-planned; that corporatization and/or privatization of our energy infrastructure is proper despite the historical record of the electrical sector being the most publicly-owned sector of the economy.

      I understand that many good folks want to help the planet and are willing to spend their own money on their own rooftop systems to help accomplish that. But they should not have to be doing this.

      And it doesn’t help us attain the most egalitarian, most intelligent, and lowest cost renewable energy system. Indeed, it works precisely against it.

      The greatest champions of rooftop solar, curiously enough, are people in the business of selling products for it. They are equivalent to well drillers using greenwashing to convince homeowners who have a municipal water supply to instead pay for their own new wells on their own property for their own consumption.

      And these fictional homeowners act just like the real-world people who just sunk 20k or 30k for their rooftop system – they now despise the “greedy” utilities and resist paying a dime toward the public wheal anymore. Ask any and all rooftop owners(s) how he feels about having to pay a monthly connection/maintenance fee for power “he doesn’t use anymore”.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      “Transmission upgrades are expensive and take a long time to accomplish. Distributed (“Rooftop”) solar (and now or soon solar+storage) is neither and clearly reduces the need for transmission upgrades and the like.”

      Some transmission upgrades are expensive; some aren’t. All of them can be made to happen fast. Rooftop solar is more expensive when transmission costs aren’t considered, and they usually aren’t. When they are, sometimes rooftop solar will still be more expensive. We have to decide as a society how much distributed and how much utility solar to build, as well as how much wind, hydro, geothermal, efficiency, storage, wiser lives, etc. to build. As long as Republicans have anything to say about what happens, we can’t even begin to decide any of this rationally. Everything comes down to political power, and the Republicans are still doing almost everything they can to keep their power and prevent rational decision-making…

      If we want these things to be decided rationally, step 1 for every one of us has to be to do everything we can to help take power. There’s no time left for denial of this fact either.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: