By Stephen Wright, Gulf States Renewable Energy Industries Association
When two million people suffer power outages like we saw across our region last month, no stone should be left unturned in assessing what happened--and what needs to change.
It’s clear that regulators will spend the next year unpacking the details of the disaster, and there’s already been helpful attention to key elements like winterizing generation equipment and the importance of being networked into a wider regional grid that can enable power to be moved across long distances.
Being in a multi-state regional grid is a reliability ingredient that we have in place in Louisiana, which most of Texas does not, but there were telltale signs that we have work to do on our grid too -- not just for performance in a crisis but for year-round benefits like energy affordability, clean energy development, and jobs. Responsibility falls to our regional grid operator, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), and to our city and state leaders who can urge and support action by MISO.
The rolling blackouts we experienced last month were one of the symptoms of regional transmission constraints. If you think of transmission like you think of roads, it’s easier to picture. Imagine a constant traffic jam and then the sudden need to squeeze more cars through the bottleneck.
When grid analysts looked at transmission data during the Polar Vortex, they saw inadequate capacity to move power from states in MISO’s North region to states in MISO South -- Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and a small portion of Texas. There were also limitations just for moving electricity around within MISO South states as well as between the MISO grid and neighboring grids to the east and west.
In my work with renewable energy developers who plan and build projects here in Louisiana, in our neighboring states, and across the MISO region, this problem of grid congestion and regional grid constraints comes up all the time. Here’s how it plays out: after finally getting through local hurdles, a solar power developer with a ready-to-build project that’s been patiently waiting in the “Interconnection Queue” at MISO suddenly gets hit with an exorbitant, project-killing price tag to complete needed transmission upgrades. Why? Because the necessary regional system planning and upgrading has not been anticipated and done.
Over the past four years, just in the MISO South region, renewable energy developers have canceled and withdrawn at least 100 projects from MISO’s Interconnection Queue. These were all energy development projects, primarily solar energy projects, that had reached advanced stages of the review process at MISO, meaning they were shown to be economically advantageous, had customers lined up, and were shovel-ready.
For a sense of the scale here, these canceled projects could have powered more than 2.2 million homes or provided significant new access to low-cost clean power for industrial customers. They also would have created about 34,000 jobs. Several were battery storage projects, which -- along with hybrid “solar plus storage” projects -- are another key to a grid running on more clean energy, as the power stored in high-tech batteries can be dispatched on demand.
MISO is built for transmission planning and has processes afoot all the time to do it, but what we’ve seen in recent years is attention going just to the smaller local or parochial grid needs. Missing in action for years now are the bigger upgrades needed to solve constraints across state lines, facilitate better electricity import and export, and enable clean energy to connect and create jobs.
While attrition of clean energy projects in the MISO Queue has been significant, the economic and cost advantages of these projects are so great that the development pipeline gets replenished. As of late last year, approximately 100 projects in MISO South states are still actively waiting in the MISO Queue--half of those just in Louisiana--representing another 35,000 potential jobs.
The chaos unleashed by last month’s extreme weather should be a kick-start to addressing our regional grid needs. There are signs of progress, as MISO has just presented an initial roadmap for some of the regional transmission lines and upgrades needed to address congestion points and enable renewables development. To turn planning into projects, though, will take more attention and urgency from customers, regulators, and our state and local leaders to press MISO forward.
Stephen Wright is executive director of the Gulf States Renewable Energy Industries Association.