WASHINGTON – Providing 20 percent of U.S. electricity through wind energy in the next 20 years is likely to cost up to $100 billion,and one company estimates the country will have to build 19,000 miles of extra-high voltage power lines.
Because most wind energy will be generated in states without oil or gas,many miles of those lines will have to cross Great Plains states to more populated areas to meet the Department of Energy's goal of 20 percent wind energy by 2030. Coastal areas are also likely to generate a lot of wind energy,but it won't have to travel so far.
“Renewable energy sources will mean nothing if there's not a grid to support it,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi,D-Calif.,said at a recent energy briefing.
Melissa McHenry,senior manager for media relations at American Electric Power,provided the estimates for her company,which is based in Ohio and generates power in several states. It has the most extra-high voltage transmission lines of any U.S. power company – 2,100 miles.
“The ideal power grid would really be built similarly to the Interstate Highway system for mass transport of energy,” McHenry said.
While DOE's “20% Wind Energy by 2030,” report is both technically and physically possible,a renewable energy portfolio faces roadblocks,experts said.
“This is a report that says we can do 20 percent by 2030,” said John Holt,of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. “But that doesn't mean we'll be there.”
Wind energy is inconsistent and difficult to transport over long distances,and it requires a large,trained workforce to operate the wind turbines. The current grid was not designed to support intermittent energy,such as wind and solar power,or to provide interstate energy commerce.
“It's going to require a lot of things: improving electronics,improving turbine blades,increasing the reliability of gear boxes and improving system controls,” said Ian Baring-Gould,senior engineer for the National Wind Technology Center. “From a research perspective,we're looking at 100 different solutions. Each will shave a small percentage off of the cost.”
For the goal to be reasonable,producers must improve wind energy by reducing costs 10 percent and increasing efficiency 15 percent,Baring-Gould said. While the recently passed stimulus package contains some funding for green energy projects,Lee Scott,former Wal-Mart chief executive officer,stressed that cost will be a big obstacle to a change to renewable energy.
“Average working people do care,but they cannot afford to pay more,” Scott said. “At Wal-Mart,if we give people a choice of something that saves money and is good for the environment,they choose that.”
Despite concerns,experts agreed there is no time to waste. Waiting until every aspect is figured out is not an option.
“The science is continuing to warn us that we really do have a planetary emergency,” former vice president Al Gore said at the briefing where Pelosi spoke. “That message still sounds shrill to many ears.”
Legislators are responding to these calls to action; in the coming weeks,several congressional hearings and other energy-related events are scheduled.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid,D-Nev.,introduced an energy bill Thursday,called the Clean Renewable Energy and Economic Development Act. The legislation would speed up green energy development by increasing the federal government's control in planning and building green transmission projects.
The proposed legislation has raised questions from state officials,who say that utilities and energy transmission have traditionally been controlled by individual states.
“The voice of state regulators is critical,” said Richard Morgan,of the District of Columbia Public Service Commission. “There are a lot of circumstances that vary by region,that vary by state.”
Morgan was attending a meeting of more than 150 energy company officials in Washington for a meeting Monday and Tuesday.
Reid's bill would give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission the power to take land for high-voltage lines without necessarily providing benefits to those states.
FERC Chair Marc Spitzer told the energy conference Monday that building energy infrastructure will require a team approach. It would be inappropriate for the process to be entirely federalized,he said.
“There has,in the past,been some tension between state and federal governments that I would describe as unhealthy,” he said. “It's my goal to work with my state colleagues to develop the best practices.”