The Wind Energy Foundation has just released a new report. In it, they talk about the need for US transmission planners to modify their calculations based on the number of big companies that are increasingly signing deals to buy wind and solar power. In this CleanTechnica exclusive, we interview John Kostyack, executive director of the Wind Energy Foundation, and David Gardiner, lead author representing David Gardiner and Associates, about the report and its consequences for broader wind and solar energy access.
You say in the press release that “that big companies are increasingly signing deals to buy wind and solar power, and their large and growing demand may exceed the capacity of existing and planned transmission lines – yet transmission planners aren’t taking this into account as they draw up their future plans.” What would persuade these transmission planners to rethink their approaches?
John: “The missing element is that the world of RTO [i.e. Regional Transmission Organization] planning has been a closed lot. Most people who are engaged in transmission planning are not coming from the world of corporate purchasing. Yet a lot of these purchases are happening. Once the RTOs have these facts, we think change will occur quickly.”
David: “The whole, incredible explosion in the demand for corporate renewable energy has been a fast growing and recent phenomenon. We want to get it on the radars of the transmission planners. The corporate renewable energy demand of 60 gigawatts by 2025 is a significant increase from a group of people who had no previous demand.”
Information from the report: “The Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance (REBA), representing more than 100 US corporate buyers, set a goal to deploy 60 GW of new renewable energy capacity in the US by 2025 — equal to 110 conventional power plants and enough electricity to power nearly 50 million homes. Considering the 9 GW of renewable energy already procured by corporate purchasers since 2013, there is at least 51 GW remaining in this goal.”
How would you describe the current state of transmission lines across the US? What specific upgrades and expansions would you recommend?
John: “We have seen some very exciting trends with wind development, especially in the middle part of the country. Now it’s time for more collaborative work. Right now, there’s not a lot of ambitious transmission planning, and that’s a cause for concern.”
David: “We’ve looked at this region between the Rockies and the Mississippi River. That region accounts for 88% of the country’s’ potential for wind and 56% for utility-scale solar photovoltaic potential, but, when you look out the future to 2050, that region will only use 30% of the demand. The real issue for transmission planners is to get the renewable energy from where it’s produced to where it’s going to get used. The corporate demand is a key element. That’s what transmission planning is all about.”
Information from the report: “The strongest and often lowest-cost renewable energy resources are located in the central U.S. region, 15 states between the Rockies and the Mississippi River: Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. This region accounts for 88% of the country’s wind technical potential and 56% of the country’s utility-scale solar photovoltaic technical potential, yet is home to only 30% of projected 2050 electricity demand. This finding suggests that future transmission is needed to export this electricity from this high-production region to the growing demand outside of this region.”
The report illuminates the large customer demand for renewable energy through transmission upgrades and expansion, and its target audience seems to be primarily discussing large companies and corporations that have significant energy needs. How is this report relevant to the average individual consumer? What consequences might an expanded and upgraded US transmission line have for individuals in the US?
John: “There are significant benefits to everyday citizens. First, average individuals are customers of these large companies. Amazon, Proctor and Gamble, GM: you have sent them a message that you want your energy clean. That relationship with these companies has made these companies want to make progress on clean air. Second, by building out a modern transmission grid, we are going to be protecting ratepayers against price spikes.”
David: “One of the upsides to expanding renewable energy is that it delivers two different kinds of important benefits. What we’re seeing is that, even after you pay for the transmission, renewable energy is rather cheap. Not only does it reduce prices for the geographic place that directly buys the energy, it does so for the consumer who buys that energy. It’s good for anybody who breathes.”
John: “I would not want to forget to mention that this is one of the great infrastructure backlogs. Our electrical system is failing to keep up, according to the Society for American Engineers. As we begin to have these conversations about our report, there will hopefully be more recognition of increased electricity infrastructure needs and the jobs opportunity from addressing the backlog.”
Information from the report: “Corporates, who are increasingly setting public renewable energy targets, have been effective at working towards their commitments to date, which makes the near-term procurement of renewables even more likely. Further, the public nature of these corporate announcements may lead companies to be even more likely to achieve their targets, as failure to meet them could result in negatively publicity.”
RI governor, Gina Raimondo, has said, “I’m a big proponent of wind and offshore wind, but the short term solution to bring down energy costs for businesses and families is natural gas.” (Note: Raimondo has since backed away slightly as a natural gas advocate.] Many like Gaimondao adhere to a position that wind just can’t provide the capacity right now that natural gas can. What does the report outline that contradicts this perspective? What should we tell the nation’s governors about transmission line expansion?
John: “You can look at the levelized cost of energy: utility-scale wind and solar energy are now often the two most inexpensive new resources. We would encourage every governor to look at the numbers in this report. Natural gas prices have just gone through the roof after the severe January weather on the east coast, which is not uncommon after severe weather events. That’s one of the reasons that wind and solar is so powerful, because wind and solar can offer 20 year contracts that hedge against price spikes.”
David: “One of the reasons you’re seeing the rise of renewable energy in corporate America is because it’s cheap. Chief financial officers are seeing that wind and solar are cheap. So many corporations are setting renewable energy goals. They have the capacity to see what these markets look like now.”
Information from the report: “Investment in transmission infrastructure is essential to support not only significant additions of renewable generation to meet corporate and other demand, but also for the longer-term electrification of transport, heating, and cooling.”
What can climate change activists do with the information provided in the report? Cost savings seems to be primary motivator, but how do you recommend that climate change activists translate the concepts of grid reliability, air quality improvements, and carbon emission reductions through transmission upgrades and expansions to the local level?
John: “Wind and solar are carbon-free: the biggest, fastest, cheapest solutions to climate change. But the keys to transmission planners are two concerns: cost and reliability. Wind and solar activists need to study up on the key role of transmission in achieving cost reductions and increasing reliability.”
David: “I think one of the things that this report highlights is the scale of impact that transmission can have. The report refers to proposed transmission lines that, if all came online, would represent more than 50 GW and zero emissions. I think it’s hard to find something that people are proposing that amounts to zero emission power plants on the grid. Wind and solar power could offset nearly 100 power plants based on new transmission potentially delivering a total of 52 GW of renewable energy. Often, people fail to understand the scale of what is possible here.”
Information from the report: “Even though PPAs have been the predominant procurement mechanism for much of the renewable energy already contracted by corporates, looking forward, a mix of both PPAs and utility products will likely be necessary to achieve the ambitious 60 GW goal. Utilities around the U.S. are currently developing tools, such as green tariffs, that allow corporates to purchase renewable energy directly through their utility.”
Any final thoughts for the CleanTechnica audience? What’s a quick, down-and-dirty description of the Take Away for CT in the “Transmission Upgrades and Expansion: Keys to Meeting Large Customer Demand for Renewable Energy” report?
John: “We have an opportunity, and we also have a risk. The opportunity is that the corporate leaders who have made these commitments will help us assure that we have a modern grid that bring renewables to market. The risk is that by failing to update our transmission infrastructure, we fail to integrate low-cost renewables onto the grid and the corporate buyers fail to meet their goals.”
Graphics courtesy of Wind Energy Foundation