THE FUTURE OF ELECTRICITY
Herding the wind
As Texas pursues big wind energy, it offers lessons for the rest of the country in the difficulty of getting a new source of energy from where it’s made to where it’s used—and how to pay for it
Home to more than 25 million people and covering more than 260,000 square miles (about six times as much land area as Kentucky), the demand for electricity is huge in Texas. The United States Energy Information Administration says Texas produces and consumes more electricity than any other state.
Wind is an abundant local resource in two areas of Texas, unlike Kentucky, which has one of the lowest rankings for potential wind energy.
But Texas-sized efforts to lasso wind power and deliver it to market offer lessons on how complicated it can be to develop new sources for generating electricity.
Coastal winds, the pleasant breezes that often flow from the Gulf of Mexico onto land, occur in the south and east. Stronger winds blow many hundreds of miles away on the other side of the state in West Texas and the Panhandle.
Terry Hadley, spokesman for the Public Utility Commission in Texas, says, “Our challenge has been to develop enough infrastructure of transmission to deliver all that wind power from the sources to the population centers.”
3,500 miles of transmission
After the Texas Legislature passed laws in 2005 requiring the use of more renewable resources such as wind power, the state’s Public Utility Commission had to find practical ways to supervise this development.
More than 40,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines already carry electricity to neighborhood substations and into local distribution lines throughout Texas. However, many of these pathways for electricity are not near the best wind areas.
As required by the new state laws, in 2008 the PUC set up a system of five competitive renewable energy zones (CREZ). Instead of hundreds of scattered wind farms each trying to connect to the grid independently, Hadley says, “These zones provide a framework to coordinate pockets of wind development.” New transmission lines within each CREZ will provide a path for electricity from that zone’s wind turbines and then move it long distances to cities such as Austin, the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and San Antonio.
Early estimates called for about 2,400 miles of new transmission lines for wind power. However, those rough calculations were based on straight lines. Finding the best routes within each zone has been a complicated process, beginning with land surveys, followed by public hearings, and finally, negotiations with individual landowners. As questions about the best routes to use based on local land features have been resolved, the distance these new transmission lines will cover has increased to 3,500 miles.
More than 2,000 wind turbines are already contributing varying amounts of electricity to the state’s power grid, and that number continues to grow. Hadley says, “When completed, the CREZ networks will be able to handle almost double the amount of electricity that can be delivered from West Texas and Panhandle wind turbines.”
These transmission network additions should be finished at the end of 2013 or the start of 2014.
The amount of electricity that comes from wind changes during each day and night, and during different seasons of the year.
$5 a month for wind
During all of 2010, wind generated a bit less than 8 percent of the electricity in Texas. That’s far behind coal, which typically provides about 40 percent of the electricity in the state. Predictions about exactly how much larger the portion of electricity coming from wind will be in the future vary greatly—no one knows exactly how often the wind will blow at useful speeds.
Recent experience shows how widely wind power can vary. During August 2011, electricity from coastal wind turbines at one time provided enough power for more than 3 million homes—then sank to only enough electricity for about 12,000 homes.
Whether it’s a lot or a little, the exact cost of any electricity from wind is passed along each month to consumers, just like the costs of electricity from other sources. However, the cost of the new transmission lines is completely separate from the cost of whatever kind of electricity flows through them.
These new transmission lines will bring wind-generated electricity into a power grid that serves more than 6 million electric meters. Sometimes consumers will receive a lot of wind power, and at other times they may receive only a little—or none at all.
Whenever wind power is available, this renewable energy supply may reduce the need to operate coal-based power plants and thus lower overall emissions from the utility sector. The Texas PUC believes that this potential to reduce emissions will benefit all consumers, and that everyone should share in the wind transmission line construction costs.
Utilities in Texas are preparing now for upcoming rate hearings to determine how much consumers will need to pay their local utilities for their share of the transmission line construction costs. Current predictions center on an extra charge of $5 per month to each residential electric meter. This fixed cost will be added to bills as early as 2013, and continue for at least 10 years.
3 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT WIND POWER >
• Texas generates the most electricity from wind, followed by Iowa, California, Minnesota, and Washington.
• Wind is unreliable in two ways. When wind is too slow or dwindles to nothing at all, the turbines won’t turn fast enough to generate electricity. But winds at extremely high speeds can also interrupt the production of power.
• When local weather conditions cause a drop in electricity production from wind turbines, some other source must be ready in an instant to add power to the grid.