Like nearly everything else about the energy sector, transmission planning has become more complex, now involving thorny issues ranging from bigger challenges with land acquisition to more variable energy sources that don’t easily mesh with the existing transmission infrastructure. The new considerations also make transmission a bigger factor in overall costs.
When the grid took shape in the early part of the 20th century, transmission development was largely about the efficient movement of power — simply getting enough to the right locations securely. Now, development is driven by new regulatory structures, new technology and energy sources, power plant competition, shifting demand, distributed generation and fast-changing power use patterns.
Even though more variables have been added to the equation, the key motivators for transmission development revolve around the familiar ones: power quality and cost.
“The two biggest factors affecting how electric utilities plan transmission are reliability and economics,” said Joseph Eto, a staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and strategic advisor for its Energy Storage and Demand Resources Department.
He is the author of more than 200 papers on issues related to reliability, transmission planning, integrated resource planning and demand-side management, including a recent paper that details the decision-making process of the transmission planning regions and, more recently, a paper that elaborates on how recent orders from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission have affected the regional planning process.
Eto listed three factors — reliability, economics and public policy — as the key arenas for transmission planning going forward.
The renewable effect
Renewables are at the center of much of the change, according to Aubrey Johnson, executive director of systems planning and competitive transmission at Midcontinent Independent System Operator, the regional transmission organization serving 15 states in the Midwest and the Canadian province of Manitoba.
“Long-term transmission planning has always been part of MISO and utility efforts, but under the significant action to move to renewable energy sources, it is even more important now to ensure that the unique challenges ahead of us are met,” he said. “As renewable penetration increases, the complexity of integrating these resources into our system accelerates rapidly.”
He noted that transmission, market and operational solutions are needed “beyond what is required to connect these resources to the system now.”
“Without these solutions, the energy delivered by each incremental renewable resource added to the system will be reduced, requiring more and more facilities be added to meet renewable energy goals.”
Johnson noted that geography is also important, especially when regions with a lot of wind generation are more remote from major load centers.
The Missouri Public Utility Alliance, which represents 120 municipal utilities and serves three power pools, has been a key advocate for the proposed Grain Belt Express, or GBX, a major transmission line that could carry up to 4,000 megawatts of energy from wind-rich central Kansas throughout Missouri and Illinois. The project has run into a number of hurdles that demonstrate the complexity of transmission development, according to Duncan Kincheloe, MPUA president and general manager. Planners believe GBX will save the 39 affected utilities and their customers nearly $13 million annually.
Now, following several years of regulatory and landowner tangles, it passed a major legislative hurdle in May and is on track to be up and running by 2024, said Ewell Lawson, vice president of government affairs, communications and member relations at MPUA.
Lawson noted that transmission projects that bring less expensive renewable energy to the load where it is needed, such as GBX, should be a popular priority and a key part of utility plans, but he cautioned that they can easily become bogged down. Landowners have become more litigious and vocal about protecting their property, thus making the approval process more complex.
More broadly, he said, RTO-level analysis and approval, while valuable, is generally cumbersome for transmission projects.
“If you go back to the pre-RTO period, everything was done by utilities and coordinated by utilities. It is important that it has been somewhat consolidated over a broader region, but that creates its own problems,” said Kincheloe.
For example, he noted that in Missouri, the ideal pathways to connect generation with load might cross between the territories for Southwest Power Pool and MISO and other parts of the state that are outside of either RTO. This means planning involves more parties and a greater and more diverse band of investors and players.
He added that the big spike in wind energy production has changed plans dramatically and rapidly but adds a new complication, because of its variability.
“More traditional generation near the load is being replaced by distant renewable resources. But you still need to have traditional sources available, and that also is a complication and a cost factor,” he said.
Weighing the needs
A 2014 white paper by Navigant Consulting for the Department of Energy described in detail how transmission planning has changed and discussed the potential benefits to be weighed by system planners.
“In an RTO region, with multiple parties owning generation, transmission, and serving load, the RTO planning process now assesses the impacts of forecasted firm loads, existing generation and transmission assets, and anticipated new generation and transmission facilities to integrate transmission options with generation and demand response projects,” the report said.
The report emphasized several benefits to having “expanded access” to a variety of generating sources, made possible through transmission projects, such as:
- Diverse sources for improved reliability
- Options for lower cost power
- Mitigating the economic ramifications of environmental regulation
- Fostering state renewable or clean energy policies
The report also touched on how system planners should consider to what extent technologies such as distributed generation and microgrids already offer such benefits to a certain area.
Changes in the industry, such as distributed generation and electrification, will play an increased role in transmission planning and needs in the future.
“MISO considers electrification as an elemental part of developing what we refer to as our ‘futures,’” Johnson said. “We perform long-range planning using bookends of what we think the future will hold in terms of energy demand, generation mix, and other variables. Those bookends are plausible insights into the next 20-40 years for determining potential transmission development, and this is part of it.”
Areas outside of an RTO’s footprint generally conduct this planning through an integrated resource planning process.
A foundation for the future
Changes may occur to assist with planning, such as new software that is more effective and better at cost analysis with the complex set of variables, and the variable costs and availability of resources.
The DOE white paper said such transmission planning applications will likely account for the uncertainty associated with generating unit and transmission system performance, weather-related demand volatility, resource intermittency, economic growth, fuel prices and public policies.
Johnson noted that one of four “strategic imperatives” spelled out in the report involves “updating the investment approach for transmission by building off the value identified in new market constructs and reliability criteria to improve deliverability of key grid needs.” The report also said MISO will strive to “enhance communication and coordination across the transmission and distribution interface — to address today’s challenges with load modifying resources and with an eye toward emerging tech and active demand.”
Johnson noted that communications with all parties will be critical, particularly about costs. “It is vitally important to the success of long-term transmission planning to have stakeholder buy-in to the issues, needs and process. Equally important and a common roadblock will be cost allocation — or simply put, who will pay for the transmission development that may ensue.”
Communications horizontally among regional bodies must also be addressed, he said.
“While collaboration with our neighbors has always existed, improvements are always being sought. The complexities and issues we face cannot be considered in a vacuum.”