By John Kemp
LONDON Jan 7 Besides the enormous oil resources
contained in the Bakken Shale, North Dakota is one of the
biggest potential producers of wind power in the United States.
North Dakota already has almost 1,500 megawatts (MW) of
wind-generating capacity installed, with another 200 MW under
construction, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
In 2011, wind provided almost 15 percent of the state's
Yet North Dakota's installed capacity is only a tiny
fraction of the state's total potential.
North Dakota could install as much as 770,000 MW of wind
capacity, generating almost 3 million megawatt hours of
electricity, ranking it sixth in the United States, according to
an estimate prepared by the Department of Energy's National
Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in 2010.
It could be a major exporter of renewable energy to the rest
of the country, especially Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.
But it remains a minnow.
The rollout of more wind farms is constrained by the lack of
high-voltage transmission capacity to the Upper Midwest.
The state's installed capacity only just outstrips New York,
which has just 26,000 MW of potential capacity, and ranks 22nd
nationwide. While New York has installed around 5.5 percent of
its theoretically possible wind capacity, North Dakota has
installed just 0.2 percent.
North Dakota illustrates a wider problem. States with the
greatest potential for generating carbon-free renewable energy
from wind lag behind because they are far from major consuming
centres and lack long-distance transmission links to the big
cities of the eastern United States.
NATIONAL WIND RESOURCES MAP
The nine states with the most wind-generation potential are
all found in a north-south band running down the Great Plains:
Texas (1.9 million MW), Kansas (932,000 MW), Montana (944,000
MW), Nebraska (918,000 MW), South Dakota (882,000 MW), North
Dakota (770,000 MW), Iowa (571,000 MW), Wyoming (552,000 MW) and
Oklahoma (517,000 MW) ().
The Department of Energy's estimates are based on average
annual wind speeds and exclude areas unlikely to be developed
such as wilderness, parks and urban areas.
The average wind speed in much of North Dakota is above 7.5
metres per second (17 miles per hour), rising above 9 metres per
second in some areas, according to the Energy Department,
compared with less than 6 miles per second in New York and less
than 5 miles per hour in Georgia.
CONDITIONAL CONSTRAINT AREAS
Unfortunately, many of the best locations for more wind
turbines are in zones the Energy Department has identified as
"conditional congestion areas." More wind capacity is blocked
from being developed by the lack of access to transmission
"The National Electric Transmission Congestion Study
identified promising areas in the Dakotas and Minnesota,
Wyoming, Montana, and Kansas and Nebraska as areas where there
are many proposals to develop commercial wind generation but
insufficient transmission capacity to support such generation
development," according to the Department of Energy ().
"Construction of new transmission lines would enable
development of thousands of MW of new renewable generation.
Parts of the (conditional constraint area) have large numbers of
generation proposals sitting in transmission access queues,
where they have been delayed for years because the existing
transmission network is not sufficient to additional electricity
from these points to load centers."
COMMERCIAL AND LEGAL BARRIERS
There are a number of reasons why more transmission capacity
has not been developed in these areas, even as wind turbines
have become more competitive with other forms of power
generation (helped by federal subsidies).
Developers of both turbines and transmission capacity are
hampered by a commercial "chicken and egg" problem. It is not
worth building turbines unless developers can be sure that
sufficient transmission capacity will exist when they are ready
to enter service. Expensive transmission links are only viable
if they can be guaranteed enough power output.
But transmission links take far longer to plan, permit and
build (5-15 years) than wind farms, so the real obstacle comes
from the transmission side.
The problem is that most transmission planning is still done
at state rather than regional level. Transmission charges to
allow developers to recover their costs are regulated by state
public utility commissions who have little incentive to take
wider regional and national considerations into account. State
commissions also control siting and the use of eminent domain to
force lines across property owned by holdout landowners.
The system worked well for fossil fuel plants located near
to urban areas, where most transmission projects occurred within
a single state. But it does not work well for renewable energy
projects delivering power to distant load centres, sometimes
thousands of miles away, transiting across several intermediate
states in the process.
"Transmission planning within the (Eastern and Western)
Interconnections has been relatively localised rather than
regional or interconnection wide," the Department of Energy
study explained, "so there was little analysis to support the
idea of building regional or inter-regional high-voltage
transmission to open up large new renewable resource areas."
"Developers need to be sure there is a clear, predictable
process for transmission project cost allocation and cost
recovery, particularly if that project crosses more than one
utility's footprint and would serve a wider area. Until recently
there have been few regional cost allocation systems to recover
the cost of large backbone transmissions projects or portfolios
of such projects."
In some instances, transmission developers have also
struggled to qualify for public utility status in transit
states, because they do not actually provide a service there,
and therefore cannot employ eminent domain laws to acquire
rights of way compulsorily.
Plains and Eastern Clean Line recently failed to secure
utility status in Arkansas for a project that would bring
wind-generated electricity from Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas to
Tennessee but not actually serve customers in Arkansas itself.
The Energy Policy Act appeared to grant the Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission (FERC) "backstop authority" to site
transmission facilities in priority National Corridors in 2005.
But that authority was severely curtailed by a judgement of the
4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ("Piedmont Environmental
versus Federal Energy Regulatory Commission" 2009).
CHALLENGES TO DIRTY ENERGY LINES
Transmission projects routinely run into a thicket of
regulatory and court challenges from landowners and
But there is some evidence that environmental groups are
willing to support transmission lines provided they serve
renewable generation (such as wind and solar) exclusively and
will not be used to carry power generated from fossil fuel
resources, while concentrating their opposition on lines that
could be used to carry power from coal, gas or nuclear plants.
The Natural Resources Defense Council and Wilderness Society
have both offered support for the Plains and Eastern Clean Line
"Our organisations have promoted the need for states to work
together on transmission planning efforts, especially to
integrate renewable resources," they wrote in a letter
supporting the project to Energy Secretary Steven Chu in June
"The Department should consider using (its existing
authority) to advance needed new lines that primarily service
new renewable energy generation and are sited in a manner that
protects our wildlife and wild lands."
It went on to add an important caveat: "We do not support
the use of this authority to facilitate further expansion of
conventional thermal power plants." Environmentalists challenged
a transmission line from Montana to Alberta, apparently on the
grounds it could transport electricity generated from coal as
well as wind, together with issues relating to siting.
Integrating large amounts of wind (and solar) resources onto
the power grid will make more long-distance transmission
essential. But while it has enthusiastic support from the
federal government, utilities and system operators, and cautious
support from environment lobbyists, progress is set to remain
slow because of the coordination problem at local level.