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DOE: More Transmission Equals A Lot More U.S. Wind

A new U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) report confirms that adding even limited electricity transmission can significantly reduce the costs of expanding wind energy to supply 35% of U.S. electricity by 2050.

The report, entitled “Reducing Wind Curtailment through Transmission Expansion in a Wind Vision Future,” is authored by the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

It affirms the findings of the DOE’s 2015 Wind Vision, which showed that a future in which wind provides 20% of U.S. electricity in 2030 and 35% in 2050 is achievable and would provide significant economic, energy security and health benefits to the nation, the DOE says.

For the study, NREL simulated the operation of the electric power grid under a scenario where 35% of electricity comes from wind in the year 2050. NREL used PLEXOS, an integrated modeling tool commonly used by utilities and transmission organizations.

The study focuses on the Western Interconnection grid, which includes 11 states, two Canadian provinces, and parts of northern Mexico where the U.S. grid crosses the border. The study includes a baseline scenario assuming no significant transmission expansion across the western grid, as well as three scenarios with varying levels of transmission build-out.

In the baseline scenario with no transmission expansion, substantial renewable energy curtailment – times in which wind farm operators are told not to produce energy due to limited capacity on the grid – could become a major issue, according to the DOE. In this scenario, about 15.5% of wind energy capacity goes unused; in turn, system costs increase as a result of idled wind generation.

The study also finds that if just four currently proposed transmission projects are built, wind curtailment can be reduced by about half, cutting lost generating potential to 7.8%.

In addition, if the nation deploys additional transmission beyond those four proposed projects, wind curtailment could be reduced even further – allowing full use of wind energy, reducing generation costs, and unleashing additional economic and societal benefits, the DOE says.

The DOE adds that the report quantifies on a regional scale what the DOE has seen happen in Texas in recent years: Wind curtailment on Texas’ grid ranged from 8% to 17% between 2009 and 2011 but fell to only 1% after new transmission lines and other upgrades were completed under Texas’ Competitive Renewable Energy Zone initiative.

According to the agency, the study also affirms that even limited additions to transmission capacity would allow more wind energy from the Mountain States to power load centers on the West Coast. On the other hand, a lack of new transmission capacity could limit the growth of wind energy and its potential benefits.

“As Congress and the incoming administration look for opportunities to enable private investments in American infrastructure, electric transmission should rise to the top,” comments Tom Kiernan, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association. “Renovating and expanding our outdated electric grid aids national security while saving consumers billions of dollars and creating more ways Americans can earn a paycheck. And once built, expanded transmission opens new export markets for states like Wyoming, Montana and New Mexico, who will be able to turn their wind resource into gold.”

Overall, says the DOE, the results of the study underline that utility grids can reliably operate with more than 35% wind energy and 12% solar energy and emphasize that even limited transmission expansion can significantly ease the path to a renewable energy future.

Kiernan adds, “Congress and the Trump administration can open the floodgates for hundreds of billions of dollars in private investment to flow into modernizing our electric grid at no cost to the taxpayer. To do it, they would start by fixing unworkable transmission planning and permitting policies that block private investment. Right now, permitting gets in the way of business, and that can delay needed expansion of our nation’s grid by nearly a decade.”

The full NREL report can be found here.

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