Wind and solar generation exceeds transmission in West Texas, limiting power grid supply

In 2005, the Texas legislature approved the development of a network of power transmission lines to send wind and solar power from West Texas to population centers in other parts of the state. The landmark project has transformed the renewable energy industry and the part of West Texas that Rep. Drew Darby calls home.

Metal fields of photovoltaic solar panels now stretch over once bare scrub land. Lines of wind turbines that scratch the sky reach the horizon. And with these renewable energy projects have come “some of our only economic development opportunities” in rural Texas, said Darby, a Republican from San Angelo.

But these opportunities are threatened as companies cancel or postpone new wind and solar farms, and the list of planned projects keeps getting shorter. One main reason: generators cannot be sure they can put their electricity on the market.

The rapid growth of renewables, especially wind power, has exceeded the carrying capacity of transmission lines. Even when demand soars and electricity supplies are insufficient, the state’s grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, must limit the power that wind and solar farms in West Texas have to offer. may sell to the network due to transmission constraints.

“I started to see some projects coming off the boards, and companies were saying they weren’t going to build,” Darby said. “I asked why, and they said, ‘We have been cut. We are going to have to reduce production at times.

That West Texas has plenty of electricity but there’s nowhere to go is more than a little ironic as policymakers and regulators focus on increasing the supply of electricity. after the deadly February crisis. ERCOT forecasts record electricity demand this summer, with a reserve margin – the additional generation cushion available when supplies tighten – which is higher than in recent years, but still well below the margins with which other grids operate. .

At an ERCOT board meeting last August, Woody Rickerson. vice president of grid planning and operations, explained that the amount of electricity coming from West Texas, the distance it has to travel, and the growing demand in booming metropolitan areas such as Houston, Dallas and the I-35 corridor combined to stress transmission lines. Another problem, he said, is that it takes 18 to 24 months to develop wind and solar farms, but up to six years to complete transmission upgrades.

“The result is going to be a lag,” he said, “and there is going to be congestion.”

A challenge’

Even as parts of the state bake in the summer heat and homeowners turn on air conditioners, transmission limits mean excess electricity generated in the West will not reach where demand is greatest. .

Ross Baldick, professor emeritus of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, said the West Texas transmission upgrades completed in 2014, can transport around 18,500 megawatts of electricity, but more than 20,000 megawatts of wind power are generated in the region. Due to other technical constraints, grid managers must limit the power through these lines to less than 12,000 megawatts for them to continue to function properly.

Think of them like water pipes, Baldick said. A main pipe feeds smaller pipes that supply water to individual homes. If you try to force more and more water into the pipes, you reach a limit where the pipes could burst. To avoid this problem, you would have two choices: build more pipes to compensate for the stress on the existing pipes, or limit the amount of water flowing through the pipes.

These are the choices for the power grid: build more transmission to transport increasing amounts of renewable energy from the west, or limit the amount of electricity on transmission lines.

The last time the legislature approved an overhaul of transmission infrastructure to accommodate renewables was in 2005 with the creation of competitive renewable energy zones. The measure created 3,600 miles of high-voltage transmission lines, which represents 23% of all high-voltage lines added in the United States from 2008 to 2020, according to the Baker Institute at Rice University. It cost electric customers around $ 6.9 billion in higher tariffs, well above the initial projection of around $ 4.9 billion due to line rerouting and inflation, among other issues. . Yet customers only saw their monthly bills increase by a few dollars, according to the Public utility commission.

The new lines have helped Texas become the nation’s largest wind power producer, said Scott Dunaway, spokesperson for Powering Texas, an alliance of local governments and wind power companies. ERCOT has not been able to say how many additional transmission kilometers have been built since the completion of the final Competitive Renewable Energy Zone project in 2014. Regardless of the figure, Dunaway said, there is still has insufficient transmission connecting West Texas to the eastern parts of the state. .

Mike Kelly, senior vice president of renewable energy company TriGlobal Energy, said Texas was not unique in this regard. He said that whenever new transmission lines are built, power producers line up to build projects and connect to the grid until that capacity is exhausted. He compared it to a leapfrog game, in which the transmission becomes constrained, ushering in transmission expansions. which attract new projects, which entail new constraints. He said this is what happened after the final Competitive Renewable Energy Zones, or CREZ, project was completed in early 2014.

“The resulting stresses created a pinch point that has stifled the development and construction of new power projects in the region for years,” Kelly said of CREZ. “A similar situation is currently preventing the new and existing generation in West Texas from serving major (population) centers in the state.”

This has led some companies to rethink renewable energy projects in the West, Kelly and Dunaway said. ERCOT recently lowered its estimate of wind power expected to be connected to the grid by next year to around 36,000 megawatts from a December forecast of around 37,000 megawatts. It has also cut its forecast for solar power entering the grid by next year to around 14,000 megawatts, from more than 16,000 megawatts. (One megawatt can power about 200 homes in Texas on a hot summer day.)

Dunaway said renewable energy companies need three main ingredients to succeed in their renewable energy projects: strong winds or abundant sunshine (which West Texas and the Panhandle have in spades); a landowner willing to lease land for the projects; and the possibility of connecting their production to the network.

“It doesn’t matter how viable the project is,” Dunaway said. if it cannot supply electricity to consumers, it is certainly a challenge ”,

Disappointed legislative hopes

Without these projects, rural communities like the West Texas district of Rep. Darby will miss local tax revenues, temporary construction jobs and full-time positions for wind technicians. Powering Texas estimates that renewable energy projects generate about $ 285 million in local and state taxes per year, and an additional $ 192 million in payments to landowners.

Darby had hoped to make up for the backlog in transmission plans when he introduced Bill 1607 in February, but the legislation died in the Senate after being passed by the House. The bill would have expedited the process used by ERCOT to study and plan new transportation projects and the ability of the Public Services Commission to approve them. The bill did not mandate the addition of additional transmission lines or dictate where they should go, Darby said, but it could have accelerated transmission proposals already underway.

ERCOT officials said 643 transmission projects were in various stages of review by the agency. ERCOT works with transportation service providers to investigate potential projects, but final approval of these projects rests with the Public Services Commission. The Texas legislature, however, can order the Public Utilities Commission to add transmission.

Until other transmission projects come online, ERCOT must continue to reject West Texas renewable energy from the grid. This will lead to more limitations on the amount of renewable energy that can be fed into the grid.

Baldick, with UT Austin, said other issues contribute to transport constraints and grid congestion, but without action by the legislature or the PUC to improve transport infrastructure, it will be difficult to bridge the gap between the growing supply of renewable energy and limited transport .

“We have to recognize that if we are to achieve higher levels of renewable energy,” said Baldick, “we will have to think about various technical solutions to increase the capacity of the grid to receive renewable energy.”

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Lois Mendez

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