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America's future wind web?

Wind power could feed 20 percent of the US energy diet. But first, the country needs a new energy network.

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“If it ends up being more cost effective for everyone to have small wind turbines in their backyard and solar panels on their roads, do we need these lines?” he asks. “I think we do. But such investments are not without risk.”

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Other experts have concerns, too. Before the MISO report came out, Gordon van Welie of ISO New England and Stephen Whitley, president of New York Independent System Operator – grid operators for much of the East Coast – issued a pointed dissent from the MISO plan.

“Until additional scenarios that include the development of local resources are analyzed, we do not believe any single transmission plan can be presented as a solution to the integration of additional renewable energy resources in the United States,” the men wrote in a Feb. 4 letter.

Given the renewable development, energy efficiency, and likelihood of new ties to Canada, the need to construct long transmission lines to the Midwest “would likely be reduced and in turn overall transmission costs may be lower,” the system operators wrote.

Where to put the lines?
Even in the middle of wide open spaces, power line towers and wind turbines can reduce the area available to farm. Closer to urban areas, 150-200 foot towers spoiling the view and noise from crackling power lines can provoke local resistance that can delay construction for years.

“We’re advocating a streamlined process,” ITC’s Ms. Aragon says. “In many states there is no defined time for how long siting can go on.... If siting can’t be completed in the current [state] model, we may need to move to a federal siting process.”

Under federal law, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has designated several “national corridors” for power lines on the East and West coasts. It could designate others. If states can’t complete siting on power lines within the corridors, FERC can override states.

But there is also growing sentiment that FERC should not have the broad transmission siting authority granted under the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Not surprisingly, parks-advocacy groups and others are furious at utility plans to build transmission lines near national parks and heritage sites like the Appalachian Trail and civil war battlefields. As many as 14 restive US senators reportedly agree and are poised to fight FERC authority. Those votes could be critical in any future battle over transmission lines.

Yet proponents of transmission lines say there’s not much question they will be built – only where, and who will pay.

“It will be critical for the federal and state government to provide some form of expedited regulatory approval, additional financial incentives and tax relief for new interstate transmission projects,” writes John Lamb, president of Clipper Windpower Development, developer of the Titan plan in an e-mail.

Out in South Dakota, the PUC’s Mr. Johnson is inclined to agree.

“We need a lot more transmission,” he says. “It’s hard in Washington to divvy up money according to merit and not politics. But if they do it on merit, South Dakota is going to do very well. We’ve got the wind.”

[Clarification: The proposed CapX transmission line mentioned above will not connect directly to the Big Stone II coal-fired power plant, as originally stated, but is expected to eventually carry power transmitted to it over a separate line from the plant.]