The Department of Energy says the potential for wind power is greatest in middle America, where strong, steady breezes blow across the prairie. But the wind farms built there often have to send their electricity across several states to find the homes and businesses that need it. So how can energy from small-town wind turbines reach big city power sockets?
energyNOW! correspondent Lee Patrick Sullivan got a rare look inside the Midwest power grid’s control room to meet the people harnessing wind’s power and moving it across the nation. You can watch the full segment below:
The Fenton Wind Farm in Chandler, Minnesota embodies America’s growing wind energy industry. It spans two counties of prime Midwest corn country and is an economic engine contributing $800,000 a year in taxes and fees, $500,000 in revenue to the 150 property owners leasing land for turbines, and employing 60 full-time technicians.
Each of the 1.5-megawatt GE turbines can power about 1,500 homes, and the entire farm generates enough electricity for 66,000 homes – more than 10 percent Minnesota’s total electricity demand. But the in order to stay in business, all those electrons need to find their way to utility customers.
It’s a tough task normally, because wind often blows strongest at night when electricity demand is lowest, and electricity must be consumed in real-time. But this is even tougher for this wind farm because it’s hundreds of miles from the nearest major city. That’s where the Midwest Independent System Operator, or MISO, comes into the picture.
MISO is one of the large regional operators managing the nation’s grid, and the engineers who work there are like air traffic controllers for electricity – making sure supply meets demand at all hours of the day. “When you start to move renewable energy, particularly wind, into the system, that energy shows up when the wind blows, not when you may or may not need it,” said Clair Moeller, MISO’s Vice President of Transmission.
If MISO can’t find a home for all the electricity on its system when wind is peaking, it may have to reduce output from other power plants, order wind farms to go offline (a process called curtailment), or enter a negative pricing situation where utilities pay people to use power. None of these options are ideal, says Moeller. “Finding a place to put it (wind power) is a much more desirable solution.”
One solution has been routing the wind energy along transmission lines built as a backup, but the secondary system wasn’t designed to carry large volumes of electricity. “We’re using that emergency backup system to move great blocks of energy all the time,” said Moeller. “That’s fundamentally the problem.” Two of the top five states in installed wind capacity are within MISO’s footprint, and ten of the thirteen states within MISO have renewable portfolio standards that boost alternative energy generation.
Given current transmission constraints, adding all that new wind energy seems problematic for the grid operator. But MISO says long-term planning and coordination with all the utilities across its system will allow it to meet demand with generation, regardless of the source. “Whether it be 20 percent renewable, or whether it be what we have today, coal, gas, or nuclear, our job is simply to keep the lights on,” said Richard Doying, MISO Vice President of Operations.