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Building the Infrastructure – Transmission and Power Grid

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The Biden administration has set impressive climate and energy targets, however necessary improvements in transmission development and power grid infrastructure will be needed to ensure they succeed. An array of federal and state proposals may birth a wave of capital and interest toward necessary renewable-synergised transmission projects.

 

Connecting Rural Renewables to Urban Usage

Transmission infrastructure is now the focus of analysis in the energy sector. As renewable generation attains economies of scale and penetrates further into the electricity generation system, it has become important to pair clean power with an upgraded modern grid. While a variety of programs, incentives, and tax credits have bolstered the fortunes of wind and solar generation companies, the amount of transmission funding to send power to customers and ratepayers has not been commensurate.

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Often, renewable generation resources are sited on more distant locations where the resource is plentiful and there is sufficient space to accommodate turbines or solar panels. Wind and solar arrays require at least ten times as much land than similar fossil fuel facilities. In many cases, the generation plant is sited with little or no consideration of transmission practicalities. As the customers for this power are usually located elsewhere – often a long way away in urban centers – and legacy grid infrastructure can be deficient in transmitting this power, modernizing the grid is a necessity.

For example, onshore wind is heavily concentrated in the Great Plains and Upper Midwest regions of the US, where the wind resource is best. Without building more transmission lines, that renewable generation capacity will serve fewer customers, a missed opportunity to integrate new infrastructure while reducing climate-damaging emissions.

Designing newer, more flexible transmission systems should also improve grid reliability and resilience as society utilizes more intermittent resources. The demands on power grids are variable. Weather, as we have seen repeatedly recently, from the extremes of flooding and wildfires, as well as lesser but unusual events like hot seasons and excessive rainfall, plays a significant role in both grid management and consumer reaction.

Researchers believe that a substantial multi-regional transmission build-out will, in effect, "smooth out" such variability. Investments in large-scale long distance transmission could be more financially wise than locally over-investing in generation, as well as being more prudent in terms of overall budgeting and grid reliability.

 

Accelerating Interconnection Queues

There is a clear need for better interconnection between all entities on the grid – from the smaller local DERs and wind farms, to large generating stations and state-wide power suppliers.

A stagnated queue of generator interconnection proposals has slowed the ability for renewable generators to access transmission systems and therefore provide electric services. This year, the queues involved over 755 gigawatts (GW) of generating capacity. Wind and solar projects made up the vast majority at 680 GW. In addition, an estimated 200 GW of electric storage capacity was in these queues, a common complement to renewable projects. The amount already in queues is approximately 70 percent of the projected capacity to meet the Biden administration’s clean energy target of 80 percent emissions-free power generation by 2030.

It seems clear that federal and state regulators and legislators should take a look at this imbalance and find a means of accelerating permissions for these systems, or the government's ambitious infrastructure goals will not be progressing towards their targets in a properly-planned way.

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