Lack of infrastructure stalls renewable energy

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Wind farms in West Texas make the state a leader in renewable power generation, but a lack of infrastructure leaves much of their potential electricity output blowing across the plains

Wind farms in West Texas make the state a leader in renewable power generation, but a lack of infrastructure leaves much of their potential electricity output blowing across the plains.

With more than 8,500 megawatts of wind capacity, Texas is the nation’s leading producer of wind power. It produces more than double the amount of wind energy than the next state, Iowa.

But the transmission lines across Texas can only handle about 4,500 megawatts of this production so thousands of megawatts of wind energy go to waste each day.

It only takes one year to build a wind farm but five years to build the power lines to transmit the energy, leaving a major surplus in the amount of power the current cable system can handle, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas Web site.

The council manages the current power lines and has been planning for the past two years to regulate the construction of a new system of high-voltage transmission lines. These will allow the distribution of wind energy across what is known as the “grid.”

The vast majority of this power is generated in West Texas, where wind production has rapidly grown in the past three years, from 2,800 megawatts in 2006, to more than 4,000 megawatts in 2008, to its current capacity of 8,500 megawatts, said council spokeswoman Dottie Roark.

Roark said a large proportion of this growth is because of the state’s new policy of rewarding environmentally friendly companies. By using wind energy, companies receive Renewable Energy Certificates, which can be sold and traded with other companies, she said.

Much of this growth is also due to the deregulation of the Texas energy sector in 1999, which opened up opportunities for more companies to produce their own power, Roark said.

While largely produced in the western half of the state, most wind energy is used by the cities of Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio. There are not enough high-voltage power cables to transfer this energy across the state, said Paul Sadler, executive director of the Wind Coalition, a nonprofit association organized to promote the development of wind energy.

“If you put too much power on the line, it will overload,” Roark said. “There are many days when ERCOT tells wind generators that they have to back down.”

The passage of Senate Bill 20 in 2005 helped jump-start the current expansion project by mandating long-term planning for the transmission line and wind farm companies. These companies were previously one united corporation before the 1999 deregulation.

The bill introduced the concept of Competitive Renewable Energy Zones, which designates eight areas around the state in which independent transmission companies can build their power lines.

According to Roark, a large amount of the land for these zones will be acquired via eminent domain.

Roark said the current plan to expand the power-line system is an expensive one. Developers estimate the project to cost more than $4.93 billion in the coming years, and they hope the new grid can be fully functional by 2013, she said.

“Private transmission line companies are encouraged to build these lines because they will receive a guaranteed rate of return [from their services],” Sadler said.

While there is no current shortage of energy, the sizeable growth of Texas cities in the past decade has caused concern for analysts about the future because expanding the system is a long-term project, said Terry Hadley, a spokesman for the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

“There is enough energy now, but Texas is a rapidly growing state, so there will be a need for more energy in the future,” Hadley said. “This plan [will be effective] for the next 10, 20 or even 30 years.”

Hadley said between 5 and 10 percent of Texas energy is generated from wind each day.
“This is a significant increase from 10 years ago, when it was only about 1 percent,” he said.

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