Navigant Research Blog

On the High Plains, Wind Industry Comes into View

James McCray — 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.

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