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 electricity consumption.
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 lines.
"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 environmental groups.
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 2011.
"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.