U.S. Energy Grid Must be Modernized to Accommodate Growth in Renewable Energy

Interview with Peter Shattuck, president of Connecticut Ocean Grid for Anbaric, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

As more renewable energy moves online through sources including solar and wind power, the issue arises of what’s the best way to integrate that energy via a transmission system into a power grid that was developed for fossil fuels more than a century ago. The answer seems to be, BYO – Build Your Own.

One of the speakers at the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters’ Environmental Summit in January was Peter Shattuck, president of Connecticut Ocean Grid for Anbaric. That’s a clean energy project development company specifically focused on designing a grid for renewables by building large-scale transmission systems across North America.

Addressing transmission issues is important because renewable energy is often produced in remote regions, such as offshore wind turbines miles from the coast, or solar farms in deserts far from population centers in large cities and surrounding suburbs. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Shattuck about the challenges and some early successes of modernizing the electric grid to better integrate renewable energy sources.

PETER SHATTUCK: The challenge is that we have a power grid that has developed, evolved, over the last 100-plus years that has centered on fossil fuel plants. These are coal-burning – although less so these days in the Northeast – natural gas and oil-burning power plants that historically have been sited close to major cities and other demand centers or close to the energy infrastructure to deliver their fuels: natural gas pipelines, rail lines for coal, or ports for bringing in fuel.

But that’s where the renewable energy is going to be. There’s a good bit of renewable solar that’s going to be all around us at small scale and so we need to modernize that component of the system. But, the bigger challenge is likely in bringing grid scale – so power plant scale – renewable energy to replace those fossil fuel plants we know we need to retire over time to meet our climate goals. And that’s because the renewables are not going to be at scale close to the major demand centers. They’re going to be 40, 50 or more miles out into the ocean. They’re going to be in less populated areas like northern Maine or possibly up in Canada. And we don’t have a grid that is built around those renewables, so that’s the challenge.

MELINDA TUHUS: So, what would a renewable grid look like?

PETER SHATTUCK: We’re in an interesting moment in time when the conversation around climate and energy is shifting from “How do we get the industry started? How do we connect a few projects?” To “How do we power our entire energy system with renewables?” And this requires a fairly significant shift in the way we think about the grid. To date, the thinking has largely been, “How do we shoehorn in one or two projects and connect them to this grid that was built for fossil fuels?” But instead, if we’re going to get to close to 100 percent renewable energy, we really need to think almost from scratch. If we were designing the grid today, what would we do to access those renewable resources, and then overlay that on the grid that we have? So the first step is just to recognize that the grid is the key enabling mechanism for reaching our renewable energy goals.

And the encouraging thing is we have some examples out there. The state of Texas actually built out a power grid specifically for wind. They have very good wind resource in the panhandle in the western part of the state, but that’s not where the big cities are. They are down in the center of the state and closer to the coast: Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Houston. There, they recognized, We’ve got a chicken and egg problem. These renewables are not going to come online because each individual project cannot pay for the cost of a large transmission line to bring its renewable energy to customers, so they built the basic infrastructure to connect those wind farms, and now Texas has more wind on their system than any other state by leaps and bounds, and they actually have, to put it in scale, more than 27,000 megawatts, which is actually more than the combined capacity of all the power plants across New England.

MELINDA TUHUS: Wow. That’s impressive. But, Peter Shattuck, I feel like I still don’t have the full picture. Are there best practices you could describe?

PETER SHATTUCK: There are best practices. Essentially it takes shifting from the current model, where the renewable energy producer is responsible for all the costs of putting their power on the grid, to pro-actively building out the basic grid infrastructure that’s needed to bring renewables online. So you could think of it kind of like the highway system. (President Dwight D.) Eisenhower famously recognized that getting across the country was very difficult, and proactively laid out a transportation grid that now spans the entire nation. We haven’t undertaken major tasks like that in a long time. In a way, to some extent, there’s an aversion to building infrastructure, but we now face this monumental challenge of climate change, so it is looking at, “Now, how do we build a truly at-scale renewable energy focused grid?” So this would require putting batteries out there, looking at what are the best places and the best approaches to build new transmission lines that will allow renewable energy to come onto the system. So it’s really a planning exercise.

We’re seeing some initial encouraging steps here. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has just started a process to independently develop transmission for offshore wind. New Jersey has just passed legislation to undertake a similar approach. I noted the Texas example. And they’ve done this in southern California, where they knew there was a lot of wind and solar in the Tehachapi mountains, but there was no way for them to get online, so what they did is they built the transmission first. So, in a nutshell, that’s what it requires – pro-actively building the transmission first so that renewable energy can then plug into the grid in an efficient way.

For more information about the ANBARIC Company, visit anbaric.com.

 

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