Navigant Research Blog

Transmission Superhighway Takes Shape

— October 20, 2014

In a previous blog I focused on the expansion of high-voltage transmission systems driven by utility-scale wind generation in the multistate arc that stretches across the central United States, from the Texas Panhandle to North Dakota.  Many of us have underestimated the impact and potential of this resource as a contributor to many states’ renewable portfolio standard targets (RPS).  Headlines about new utility-scale solar projects obscure the fact that installed utility-scale wind capacity is at least 5 times that of solar.

Recently, I looked into the long term electric transmission plans for every region in the United States, and found interesting developments in the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) region.  SPP covers much of the Great Plains and the Southwest, including all or part of an eight-state area that includes Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.  The geographical footprint of SPP overlaps slightly with other independent system operators (ISOs) and regional transmission operators (RTOs) such as Midwest Independent System Operator (MISO).  SPP’s footprint can be seen in the map below.

SPP Regional Footprint

 (Source: Southwest Power Pool)

In 2008, SPP announced that it plans to build the electric equivalent of the United States interstate highway system – an interstate transmission superhighway that would serve as the backbone of a higher capacity, more resilient transmission grid, while providing increased access to low-cost generation, improving electric reliability, and meeting future regional electricity needs.

The SPP transmission plans I saw show that this conceptual idea is beginning to come to fruition, as new 345 kV transmissions systems are being built and older systems are upgraded.  Many of these projects have been completed by the transmission owner/entities in the region to address congestion issues in corridors like the Omaha/Kansas City to the Texas Panhandle route.  The figure below shows recent transmission system builds and upgrades.

SPP Regional Transmission System

(Source: Southwest Power Pool)

On the Horizon  

Meanwhile, ABB has debuted new, 1,110 kV high-voltage direct current systems.  A recent announcement by ABB on new products with 1,110 kV high-voltage direct current capabilities raises the bar again.  Until this announcement, 765 kV lines were the largest capacity lines available, and most transmission lines are currently in the 230 kV to 350 kV sizes.  ABB and other vendors (such as Alstom Grid, General Electric, and Siemens) are focusing on the Asia Pacific markets in China and India, as well Northern Europe, where major utility-scale wind projects now under construction will need to be connected with urban areas.  ABB’s announcement is exciting because it raises the high-voltage capability to a new level, well above what we currently see here in the United States.  I can only imagine that ABB will be talking to SPP about how to take the transmission superhighway to the next level.

 

Epic Electric Transmission Crosses the Rockies

— October 14, 2014

One of the most ambitious high-voltage transmission system and utility-scale energy storage projects in history is happening in the American West.  Designed by Duke American Transmission in a partnership with Pathfinder Renewable Wind Energy, Magnum Energy, and Dresser-Rand, the massive plan was recently announced.  As I have discussed in a previous blog, the utility-scale wind generation projects in progress across the High Plains and the Midwest are epic, to say the least.  Transporting this energy to major population centers such as Los Angeles represents major challenges and huge transmission system investments.  The intermittency of the wind resource needs to be managed, as well.  That is why this proposal represents some very creative thinking and engineering.

Driving cross-country from San Francisco to Northern Wisconsin on I-80, I began to better understand the massive geographical challenges that transmission utility planners and operators face.  The idea of moving twice the power that the Hoover Dam in Nevada produces from Chugwater, outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Southern California includes building high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines across mountain passes up to 11,000 feet in Wyoming, and slightly lower passes in Nevada and California.  These lines will take years to fund and build, creating significant opportunities for major suppliers like ABB, which recently announced new 1,100 kV HVDC transmission system capabilities.

Salt Storage

The other really striking part of this announcement is the grid-scale storage project, which proposes to excavate salt caverns in central Utah and use them to store the wind energy as huge volumes of compressed air, serving as a massive battery, larger than any storage system ever built.  Compressed air would be pumped into these caverns at night, when wind power generation is peaking, and discharged during the day during periods of higher demand. 

The proposal is currently going through what may be endless approval processes at the state and federal levels, but a decision could come as soon as 2015.  In many ways, this new and novel proposal reminds me of the Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) Helms pumped storage solution that has been operating since 1984, storing Diablo Canyon’s nuclear output at night by pumping water up into a lake and then discharging it through turbines for peak generation.  The Duke project could be an epic feat of American power engineering to rival Hoover Dam itself.

 

On the High Plains, Wind Industry Comes into View

— September 25, 2014

Most of us who study the utility industry know that utility-scale wind generation has been rapidly growing in many parts of the country, but I think we have chronically underestimated the impact and potential of this resource as an electric power generation resource and a totally clean and green contributor to many states’ renewable portfolio standard (RPS) targets.

Driving cross-country from San Francisco to our cabin in Northern Wisconsin this summer on I-80, I was amazed by the number of large-scale wind farms we saw in every state.  Through Nebraska and Iowa, I kept seeing flatbed semi-trucks with 100-plus-foot wind generator blades heading west.  Other trucks had tower tubes and generator unit housings as well.  It was clear to me that something was really happening here.  As we crossed the state line into Iowa, we passed a rest area with a huge 148’ turbine blade mounted vertically to honor the wind industry.  As tall as a 15-story building, the blade was donated by Siemens.

I was also struck on the drive by the ubiquity of high-voltage transmission power lines, large-scale substations, and huge coal-fired generation plants on the horizon.  The utility-scale wind farms were a welcome diversion and a signal that the power generation and transmission system industry is moving on.

More on the Horizon

Later in July we headed back to the Bay Area, taking the northern route, following I-90 across western Minnesota and South Dakota.  Again, the prevalence of utility-scale wind farms was striking.  However, the landscape, crisscrossed with new high-voltage transmission lines, was also remarkable and signaled to me that utilities and investment firms (through companies like Berkshire Hathaway Energy) are doubling down on their $15 billion investment in wind generation and the transmission infrastructure needed to support our country’s electric capacity requirements as coal and nuclear generation resources are retired in the next few years.  Berkshire Hathaway Energy also has another $15 billion in reserve.

The following graphic produced by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) shows the wind energy potential across the nation.

Wind Energy Intensity, United States

(Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

You can see why utility-scale wind power is happening primarily between the Texas Panhandle and the borders of North Dakota.  In fact, Southwest Power Pool says that its major congestion problem is now in the Omaha to Kansas City to Texas Panhandle region, which explains why there are now double the high-voltage transmission lines going north and south as well as east and west at the Minnesota/South Dakota border at Sioux City.  Based on what I saw through our car window, I expect more investment in both utility-scale wind generation in the region and the high-voltage transmission systems necessary to deliver that energy to diverse population centers.

 

High-Voltage Transmission System Landscape Undergoes Dramatic Change

— June 24, 2014

The high-voltage transmission system (HVTS) landscape can only be described as vast and evolving, as the forces of modernization, urbanization, and industrial expansion are transforming the power grids in Asia Pacific, Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.  In my forthcoming report, High-Voltage Transmission Systems, I explain why each of these regions represents a tremendous opportunity for the seven major HVTS technologies and why the market is expected to grow strongly.  These HVTS technologies include:

  • High-voltage direct current (HVDC) systems
  • High-voltage alternating current (HVAC) systems
  • Submarine and superconducting cables
  • Flexible AC transmission system (FACTS) solutions
  • Asset management and condition monitoring (AMCM) systems
  • Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems
  • Substation automation (SA) systems

Both Europe and North America are clearly more mature markets.  Aging infrastructure and the adoption of utility-scale wind and solar generation will drive the reconfiguration of the HVTS network in those regions, likely creating many new opportunities.

Tectonic Shifts

The increasing investment from the private sector is exemplified by Berkshire Hathaway’s rebranding of MidAmerican Energy Holding Co. as Berkshire Hathaway Energy.  The Electricity Transmission Texas (ETT) partnership, which combines Berkshire Hathaway Energy and transmission system operator American Electric Power, demonstrates the foresight needed to invest in these large-scale infrastructure projects and points to financial markets seeing long-term opportunity in the next generation of the HVTS network.

The HVTS market has a history of epic mergers, such as Alstom and Schneider Electric acquiring parts of Areva and General Electric’s (GE’s) takeover of Alstom, that point to a shifting landscape of HVTS players.   From a technological standpoint, we are seeing the beginning of a new era where the Internet of Things (IoT) hits the HVTS market full force with inexpensive, easy-to-install wireless and remote sensors and cloud-based computing resources that use complex analytics and machine-learning algorithms to manage all aspects of the HVTS.  Indeed, the HVTS roadmap will be an interesting and profitable journey over the next decade and beyond.

 

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