The Transmission Infrastructure Dilemma

Last week, Bismarck, ND was host to the second annual Great Plains Energy Expo and Showcase. Hosted by Bismarck State College and Senator Byron Dorgan, the conference focused on North Dakota's growing energy industry, including the wind energy sector, with presenters such as T. Boone Pickens discussing the opportunities and challenges facing the industry.

Wind is a readily available resource on the plains of North Dakota, which have been referred to as the "Saudi Arabia of wind". According to David Hadley of the Midwest ISO, a transmission coordination agency, North Dakota is the top state in the nation for wind energy potential. At 40% capacity, the state would have over 345,000 MW of potential generation capacity.

Current generating capacity is a minuscule fraction of this potential output. However, North Dakota has seen a major increase in investment in wind energy projects over the past several years. In 2005, there was only 80 MW of wind generation in the state. As of June, 2008, that number stands at "716 MW either in service or under construction, plus another 807.5 MW that has either been site permitted or is in some stage of the siting process." According to the Midwest ISO, potential North Dakota projects being discussed or currently under way add up to 7656 MW of potential generation. One major project under discussion would include 2000 MW of generation, costing around 4 billion dollars. The development is, in the words of one elected official interviewed by the Bismarck Tribune, "truly eye-popping."

Standing in the way of exploiting the Great Plains' wind bonanza is a major challenge- transmission capacity. North Dakota currently has a transmission export limit of 1950 MW, which is fully subscribed by current power producers. While several upgrades to the system are in the works, they will fall far short of the massive build up in transmission infrastructure needed to allow for continued rapid expansion of generation capacity. As one presenter at the Great Plains Expo put it, the region is "a victim of [its] own location."

In August the New York Times discussed the challenge posed by transmission limitations, noting that "North Dakota and South Dakota, could in principle generate half the nation’s electricity from turbines. But the way the national grid is configured, half the country would have to move to the Dakotas in order to use the power." If unaddressed, the inadequacy of the electric grid will serve as a check on energy driven economic development on the Great Plains. Rick Sergel, President of the North American Electricity Reliability Corp. (NERC), argues that "Without new transmission development needed to support these resources," it is likely "only a fraction," of currently proposed wind projects will be built. Speaking to Reuters, Sergel called for serious consideration of "comprehensive plans that cross state lines and international borders to build the clean-energy superhighway that will provide everyone equally with access to carbon-free generation".

It appears that expansion and modernization of transmission infrastructure will receive significant attention from the incoming administration. President-elect Obama stated in an interview on MSNBC that "the most important infrastructure projects that we need is a whole new electricity grid," and that he wants such projects "to be able to get wind power from North Dakota to population centers, like Chicago." With the current economic slowdown increasing calls for an economic stimulus package, investment in infrastructure, including grid expansion and modernization, appears set to take a central role in policy discussions in the coming year.