The Energy Challenge
Wind Energy Bumps Into Power Grid’s Limits
Aug 27, 2008 - MATTHEW L. WALD - New York
When the builders of the Maple Ridge Wind farm spent $320
million to put nearly 200 wind turbines in upstate New York,
the idea was to get paid for producing electricity. But
at times, regional electric lines have been so congested
that Maple Ridge has been forced to shut down even with
a brisk wind blowing.
That is a symptom of a broad national problem. Expansive
dreams about renewable energy, like Al Gore's hope of replacing
all fossil fuels in a decade, are bumping up against the
reality of a power grid that cannot handle the new demands.
The dirty secret of clean energy is that while generating
it is getting easier, moving it to market is not.
The grid today, according to experts, is a system conceived
100 years ago to let utilities prop each other up, reducing
blackouts and sharing power in small regions. It resembles
a network of streets, avenues and country roads.
"We need an interstate transmission superhighway system,"
said Suedeen G. Kelly, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory
While the United States today gets barely 1 percent of
its electricity from wind turbines, many experts are starting
to think that figure could hit 20 percent.
Achieving that would require moving large amounts of power
over long distances, from the windy, lightly populated plains
in the middle of the country to the coasts where many people
live. Builders are also contemplating immense solar-power
stations in the nation’s deserts that would pose the same
The grid’s limitations are putting a damper on such projects
already. Gabriel Alonso, chief development officer of Horizon
Wind Energy, the company that operates Maple Ridge, said
that in parts of Wyoming, a turbine could make 50 percent
more electricity than the identical model built in New York
"The windiest sites have not been built, because there
is no way to move that electricity from there to the load
centers," he said.
The basic problem is that many transmission lines, and
the connections between them, are simply too small for the
amount of power companies would like to squeeze through
them. The difficulty is most acute for long-distance transmission,
but shows up at times even over distances of a few hundred
Transmission lines carrying power away from the Maple Ridge
farm, near Lowville, N.Y., have sometimes become so congested
that the company's only choice is to shut down — or pay
fees for the privilege of continuing to pump power into
Politicians in Washington have long known about the grid's
limitations but have made scant headway in solving them.
They are reluctant to trample the prerogatives of state
governments, which have traditionally exercised authority
over the grid and have little incentive to push improvements
that would benefit neighboring states.
In Texas, T. Boone Pickens, the oilman building the world's
largest wind farm, plans to tackle the grid problem by using
a right of way he is developing for water pipelines for
a 250-mile transmission line from the Panhandle to the Dallas
market. He has testified in Congress that Texas policy is
especially favorable for such a project and that other wind
developers cannot be expected to match his efforts.
"If you want to do it on a national scale, where the
transmission line distances will be much longer, and utility
regulations are different, Congress must act," he said
on Capitol Hill.
Enthusiasm for wind energy is running at fever pitch these
days, with bold plans on the drawing boards, like Mayor
Michael Bloomberg's notion of dotting New York City with
turbines. Companies are even reviving ideas of storing wind-generated
energy using compressed air or spinning flywheels.
Yet experts say that without a solution to the grid problem,
effective use of wind power on a wide scale is likely to
remain a dream.
The power grid is balkanized, with about 200,000 miles
of power lines divided among 500 owners. Big transmission
upgrades often involve multiple companies, many state governments
and numerous permits. Every addition to the grid provokes
fights with property owners.
These barriers mean that electrical generation is growing
four times faster than transmission, according to federal
In a 2005 energy law, Congress gave the Energy Department
the authority to step in to approve transmission if states
refused to act. The department designated two areas, one
in the Middle Atlantic States and one in the Southwest,
as national priorities where it might do so; 14 United States
senators then signed a letter saying the department was
being too aggressive.
Energy Department leaders say that, however understandable
the local concerns, they are getting in the way. "Modernizing
the electric infrastructure is an urgent national problem,
and one we all share," said Kevin M. Kolevar, assistant
secretary for electricity delivery and energy reliability,
in a speech last year.
Unlike answers to many of the nation's energy problems,
improvements to the grid would require no new technology.
An Energy Department plan to source 20 percent of the nation's
electricity from wind calls for a high-voltage backbone
spanning the country that would be similar to 2,100 miles
of lines already operated by a company called American Electric
The cost would be high, $60 billion or more, but in theory
could be spread across many years and tens of millions of
electrical customers. However, in most states, rules used
by public service commissions to evaluate transmission investments
discourage multistate projects of this sort. In some states
with low electric rates, elected officials fear that new
lines will simply export their cheap power and drive rates
Without a clear way of recovering the costs and earning
a profit, and with little leadership on the issue from the
federal government, no company or organization has offered
to fight the political battles necessary to get such a transmission
Texas and California have recently made some progress in
building transmission lines for wind power, but nationally,
the problem seems likely to get worse. Today, New York State
has about 1,500 megawatts of wind capacity. A megawatt is
an instantaneous measure of power. A large Wal-Mart draws
about one megawatt. The state is planning for an additional
8,000 megawatts of capacity.
But those turbines will need to go in remote, windy areas
that are far off the beaten path, electrically speaking,
and it is not clear enough transmission capacity will be
developed. Save for two underwater connections to Long Island,
New York State has not built a major new power line in 20
A handful of states like California that have set aggressive
goals for renewable energy are being forced to deal with
the issue, since the goals cannot be met without additional
But Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico and a former
energy secretary under President Bill Clinton, contends
that these piecemeal efforts are not enough to tap the nation's
potential for renewable energy.
Wind advocates say that just two of the windiest states,
North Dakota and South Dakota, could in principle generate
half the nation's electricity from turbines. But the way
the national grid is configured, half the country would
have to move to the Dakotas in order to use the power.
"We still have a third-world grid," Mr. Richardson
said, repeating a comment he has made several times. "With
the federal government not investing, not setting good regulatory
mechanisms, and basically taking a back seat on everything
except drilling and fossil fuels, the grid has not been
modernized, especially for wind energy."