When it comes to building out the clean energy infrastructure, everyone loves to talk about the megaprojects: a sprawling wind farm in the ocean or a giant solar farm in the high desert. But none of those projects help much if we don't have ways to get the clean power to our homes and businesses.
That's why one of the brightest signs in renewable energy in the last couple of weeks was the announcement by an international consortium that it will construct a $1.5 billion transmission line called the Panhandle Loop in Northern Texas.
The Panhandle Loop will be 800 miles long and connect the wind resource rich Texas Panhandle with the power hungry cities to the south of Dallas/Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Austin. Eddie O'Conner, CEO of the Irish-based wind company Airtricity, compared the effort to building a power plant large enough to meet all of Ireland's needs. It's an odd comparison since the Panhandle Loop itself will generate no electricity.
One of the great limitations of the development of renewable energy in America is the transmission infrastructure. Think of the arrangement as a national highway system for electrons, except there's no national organization. It's just a patchwork system of private roads built over the years to suit particular needs.
Every time a developer evaluates a potential wind farm, he doesn't just calculate the value of the wind resources on a given site, he has to figure out the cost of connecting a project to the existing electric grid. The math isn't particularly complicated: the farther any given project is from transmission lines, the higher the project cost.
In a perfect world, we'd already have transmission lines intersecting the windiest and sunniest regions across the country and across globe. Unfortunately, most transmission lines weren't designed with renewable energy in mind, they were built to deliver power from fossil fuel plants.
Up until now, a few transmission lines have been built for wind resources, but the projects a have been relatively rare and small in scope. The capital costs of new transmission lines have simply been too large.
There are people focused on the transmission bottleneck. At an American Wind Energy Association meeting in Denver, I spoke about the issue with Beth Soholt, director of Wind on the Wires, a group pushing for more wind-dedicated transmission lines in the Midwest. Her group helps fast-track projects that can connect the windy Dakotas to population centers like the Twin Cities and Chicago.
The size of the transmission projects they've erected doesn't compare to the ambitions of the Panhandle Loop. Texas leads the nation in wind energy production, nearly a third of the new turbines erected last year went up in Texas. The state hosts the single largest operating farm in the world, the 735 MW Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center. The Panhandle Loop would carry 4,200 megawatts of wind generated power equaling more than a third of the total existing capacity in the United States.
Texas isn't just hungry for green power, mind you, it's just power hungry generally. The Panhandle Loop would carry a mixed load of electrons: about half from wind power and half from conventional sources. But some Texans are wondering whether the Panhandle Loop could provide the antidote to one of the most short-sighted energy initiatives in the nation: a plan to build eleven new coal plants in the state in the next few years.
Here's what Pat Wood, a former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and a member of the Panhandle Loop consortium, told the Dallas Morning News: "I honestly don't know whether or not customers will view this project as an alternative…but I do know that a kilowatt-hour from the Panhandle is one that doesn't have to be generated somewhere else."
Hopefully new transmission lines will make that argument a lot more prevalent across the country in the years to come.
Distributed power generation should be an option? With quieter wind turbines now available (by ringing the tips of the blades) its not much of a leap to imagine an 800 miles long transmission infrastructure with 800 miles of solar collectors, 12,000 quite wind turbines or more, supplemented by clean burning micro / gas turbines and steam turbines run by solar thermal heat. Any excess power geenrated can be used to manufacture hydrogen. We need the will to concieve a clean burning microturbine in every other home or office building where the oxygen-rich exhaust waste heat is used for heating or cooling thereby greatly increasing the fuel use efficiency. High voltage transmission is an archaic model wasting enormous amounts of energy and should have no place in modern green thinking. Just a few thoughts.