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Seeking renewables, corporations face transmission constraints

As planned long-distance transmission lines falter in the United States, corporations must become more involved in the modernization of the power grid to meet their renewable-energy targets, a panel of experts said March 27.

In the wake of the U.S. Department of Energy's decision to back away from private developer Clean Line Energy Partners LLC's troubled Plains and Eastern transmission line, "companies need to engage in the transmission planning process," Stefani Millie Grant, senior manager for external affairs and sustainability at Unilever Corp., said during a webinar hosted by Americans for a Clean Energy Grid.

The webinar presented a January 2018 report, commissioned by the Wind Energy Foundation, that found that even as renewable energy generation capacity expands in the central U.S. and prices for electricity from wind and solar farms continue to fall, "customers' access to this affordable energy is constrained by inadequate transmission planning."

"Transmission planning fails to consider the rising tide of demand for renewable energy from corporate and large institutional customers," said David Gardiner, president of David Gardiner and Associates, the Arlington, Va.-based consultancy that produced the report for the Wind Energy Foundation.

Utilities and grid operators tend to focus solely on renewable portfolio standards and other government mandates when calculating future demand for renewable energy, Gardiner said, ignoring the large and growing demand from corporations voluntarily setting clean-energy targets.

How to be carbon-positive

"RTOs should take account of this large customer demand," Gardiner said. "Renewable energy is no longer solely about what do utilities buy; it's also about other large institutional buyers."

Unilever is a global company that makes food and personal care products including Hellmann's mayonnaise, Q-Tips and Ben & Jerry's ice cream. It plans to source all of its electricity purchased from the grid from renewable sources by 2020 and to become "carbon positive" by 2030. That means not only producing and procuring enough renewable energy to run its own operations, but also "directly supporting the generation of more renewable energy than the company consumes, making the surplus available to the markets and communities where we operate," Grant said.

The problem is one of geography: 88% of the "technically potential" wind energy in the continental U.S., and 56% of the solar energy, lies in 15 states of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, but more than two-thirds of future load growth will come from the West and the East. That means that long-distance, high-voltage transmission lines that cost billions of dollars and take many years to build will be needed to satisfy that demand with renewables.

The fate of the Plains and Eastern project highlights the challenges facing such grid expansions. In development since 2010, the 700-mile, high-voltage, direct-current line was designed to move up to 4,000 MW from wind farms in the Oklahoma Panhandle to a substation in Tennessee and on to customers in the Southeast by way of Arkansas. The cost is estimated at $2.5 billion. In March 2016 Clean Line won an agreement from the DOE to support the project, specifically in using federal powers of eminent domain to obtain rights of way for the line's route. The Trump administration in January included Plains and Eastern line on its priority list for infrastructure projects.

A blow to transmission

Clean Line won approvals from regulators in Oklahoma and Tennessee, but it faced strong resistance from Arkansas policymakers and landowners. On March 23, the DOE pulled out of the partnership, raising the possibility that the line will never be built.

"It's definitely a hard blow for HVDC and merchant transmission," said Eli Massey, senior adviser for policy studies at the Midcontinent ISO. "But from a MISO standpoint it doesn't really impact how we evaluate increased renewable energy in our footprint and the need to move that energy west to east."

Describing MISO's transmission planning process, Massey acknowledged some of the challenges facing regional transmission organizations: the U.S. grid is Balkanized, allocating the costs and calculating the benefits of major grid expansions is an inexact science, and MISO often doesn't even know about corporate deals to procure renewable energy, much less have the capacity to plan for them.

"Because MISO is not a signatory to power purchase agreements, we don't always know about them," Massey said. "It's difficult to plan in that context."

As a result, transmission planning at the state, regional and national levels is antiquated and inadequate to meet the needs of large corporate buyers in the 21st century, Gardiner said.

"The current system [for grid planning] doesn't do a good job of counting up benefits," he said. "When we built the interstate highway system, we recognized that it would provide benefits not just to the people who live along the highway, but national benefits. We need to be thinking about how to assess the wider benefits of long-distance transmission and how to account for those on a wider geographical basis."