US Finally Stitches Renewable Energy Seams Together

For those doubting that the global economy can decarbonize fast enough to avert catastrophic warming, take a look over at the United States. The nation’s massive offshore wind resources are finally in the pipeline, and its land-based renewable energy profile is about to get a shot of adrenaline. Two leading transmission stakeholders in the US have hatched a plan to stitch themselves together, opening a bottleneck that has held back wind and solar developers for years.

At this writing, Russia seems intent on murdering as many people in Ukraine as it can. Millions are fleeing and in need of assistance. To help refugees from that conflict and others, donate to Doctors without Borders or other reliable aid organizations.

Know Your Seams, Renewable Energy Edition

For those of you new to the topic, the US electricity grid could be all interconnected, enabling states with ample wind and solar resources to send their clean kilowatts over to others. However, it is not. The US is chopped into various regions that are not seamlessly interconnected. Jumping the seams between grids is a cumbersome exercise, holding back wind and solar development.

The US Department of Energy has been working on a grid modernization initiative that would help renewable energy development, with a focus on the east-west seam that slips the country down the middle until it meets Texas, which has its own grid under the management of ERCOT (long story!).

Just a few months after former President Trump took office with a coal-friendly agenda, the Energy Department went ahead and updated the public on their grid modernization efforts.

That included something called the Interconnections Seam Study which was designed to support utilities and other grid stakeholders by quantifying the value of addressing the seam issue.

Apparently the White House got wind of the study, so to speak, and promptly buried it.

Renewable Energy Not Dead Yet

With the climate-friendly President Joe Biden in office, naturally the Interconnections Seam Study is on the move again.

Last October, the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory published an update in the journal IEEE Transactions on Power Systems.

“Uniting the Eastern and Western US electric grids could offer significant value in strengthening the power system’s ability to share generation resources and flexibility across regions, according to the Interconnections Seam Study,” NREL explained.

NREL senior research engineer Josh Novacheck emphasizes the impact on cross-country renewable energy resource sharing:

“With variable renewable resources like wind and solar contributing an increasing share of our nation’s electricity supply, the ability to transfer those resources across regions could be incredibly valuable—whether that’s in periods of power system stress, like extreme weather, or during a typical day when we want to take advantage of the best available resources.”

“Results show that increasing the transmission capacity between the Eastern and Western Interconnections could enable more economically efficient and flexible exchange of power throughout the United States—with scenarios showing up to $2.50 in benefits for every $1 of cost,” NREL explained.

MISO & SPP Not Waiting On Your Seam Study

Even though the NREL study was officially on ice during the Trump administration, various other attempts to stitch up those seams continued apace. The east-west divide described by NREL is further divided into nine regional transmission organizations, and two of them have been collaborating on new a study that is about to bear fruit.

One of the partners is MISO, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator. It covers 15 states in the midsection of the US, along with the Canadian province of Manitoba, and serves a population of 42 million people.

The other is SPP, the Southwest Power Pool. It sits adjacent to MISO and covers 14 states on a membership basis, and has a reliability agreement with three others.

More Renewable Energy For The US

With more than half of US states under their belts, MISO and SPP could have had an outsized impact on the nation’s renewable energy profile, and that is exactly what they have in mind.

About 18 months ago, the two partners launched the “Joint Interconnection Queue Study,” with the particular aim of busting open the bottleneck that has been preventing new projects from hooking up to the grid.

Last week they announced the results, along with specific guidance on next steps.

“..the study identified a seven-project portfolio with a planning level estimated cost of $1.65 billion, resulting in increased reliability by mitigating constraints, improving transfer capability between the two RTOs [regional transmission operators] and better aligning the MISO and SPP interconnection processes,” the two partners explain.

“In addition, economic analysis conducted by the RTOs shows customers can anticipate an Adjusted Production Cost (APC) benefit of $724 million in the MISO footprint and $247 million in the SPP region,” they add.

Wind & Solar In The US: You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet

As described in the JTIQ Study, the proposed portfolio would result in anywhere from 28 gigawatts to 53 gigawatts of “improved interregional generation enablement” for projects located near the seam, and the wheels are already in motion.

“Cost allocation discussions for these interregional projects are underway and projects are subject to approval from each RTO’s respective Board of Directors,” the two partners explain.

In a letter introducing the executive summary of new study, MISO CEO John Bear and SPP President and Barbara Sugg emphasize that “consumer preferences and public policy goals have increased the demand for renewable energy, and increased, our member utilities are moving to address those needs.”

As described by the two executives, the nation’s current grid setup was designed to provide for local or semi-local generation to fill local needs. It simply can’t handle the demands of a decarbonized, distributed energy profile.

“…renewable technologies have very different operating characteristics than controllable units,” they explain. “Because of these and other factors, the grid of tomorrow will be very different than the one we see today. These trends transcend boundaries.”

Next Steps For Renewable Energy In US: Follow The Money

If you’re wondering why nobody has ever tried this before, that’s a good question. The two partners point out that when previous studies have triggered costly upgrades, the interested parties have dropped out. The JTIQ Study is a ground breaker that demonstrates how grid stakeholders can target interconnection relief to get the most bang for the buck.

The partners expect that the success of the initial portfolio will touch off additional interest.

“… the joint study identified projects that will better prepare both of our systems for future portfolio change. This effort has paved the way for further collaboration between our two RTOs,” the explain. “As more renewables are connected to both of our respective systems, the ability to move power from where it is generated to where it is needed will only grow in importance.”

In a tragic coincidence of timing, the JTIQ Study has come out as Russia continues its murderous rampage through Ukraine, leading to the potential for a global energy crisis. The study’s advocacy for renewable energy is a stark contrast with the chorus of calls for more oil and gas drilling as a response to the potential crisis.

Perhaps the loudest voices making the argument for oil and gas have their own self interest in mind, or perhaps not. Either way, if quick action is the goal, asking people to conserve energy at home would help. Or, is that asking too much?

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Image: Joint Transmission Interconnection Queue study courtesy of MISO.


 

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