The following is a contributed article by John Moore, director of the Sustainable FERC Project.
The 2050 target date for 100% carbon-free electricity being pursued by states like Michigan, Louisiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota feels very far away, but decisions that will make or break success are much closer at hand.
An upcoming December vote by the board of directors for the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) on a package of transmission system projects is a case in point. Transmission projects take many years to complete, so the window is about to close on our ability to set states up for success even on 2025 and 2030 clean energy goals.
Unfortunately, the package of projects up for vote in the MISO Transmission Expansion Plan for 2020 (MTEP20) does virtually nothing to alleviate grid congestion that’s slowing clean energy growth. Few, if any, of the hundreds of smaller projects in MTEP20 address the grid bottleneck at the regional level – the longer-distance, high-voltage lines that enable power from a new solar or wind project to flow to customers across a wider multi-state geography.
Just how big a concern is it that long-range transmission capacity is lacking across the Midwestern and Southern MISO grid? Renewable energy developers are unambiguous: “In my opinion, this is the single largest thing holding back renewable development,” says EDP Renewables regulatory and market affairs director David Mindham.
The numbers from the Sustainable FERC Project’s map and analysis of the MISO Interconnection Queue — where developers submit projects for study to determine costs to reliably connect to the grid — are telling. While the Queue is packed with clean energy projects developers want to build, many are being scuttled because of grid constraints.
From 2016 through October 15, 2020, developers withdrew 278 wind, solar and battery storage or hybrid solar-storage projects from the Queue, and this just counts withdrawn clean energy projects that had reached advanced stages of the interconnection study process. If they’d been built, they would have supplied nearly 35,000 MW, enough to power more than 8 million homes and create about 72,000 jobs. The median wage for jobs in clean energy today is about $24 an hour.
For states pressing for clean energy transition and job creation, it’s painful to see that much environmental and economic benefit evaporate. The culprit here isn’t always grid congestion, but it’s become a constant factor.
Maps like this one from MISO show huge areas — those in orange, red and dark red — where the transmission system is already asked to handle more power than what the grid operator advises. It’s a problem both in the northern and southern MISO states. Michigan, Minnesota, Arkansas and Louisiana are the top four of all MISO states in terms of renewable energy withdrawn from the MISO Queue since 2016.
Clean energy developers are pulling their plans from the Queue as they’re assigned grid upgrade costs that are too steep for a single project to bear. In MISO West, for example, high voltage grid upgrade costs assigned to developers have been raising the total costs of projects more than 60% on average.
MISO planning processes such as MTEP are the key to solving the problem, because they allow for anticipating and getting ahead of transmission needs, and distributing the costs across all who benefit. Although it’s sorely lacking now, this has been done well before in MISO. A package of regionally-focused upgrades called the Multi-Value Projects launched 10 years ago are now delivering low cost, renewable energy throughout the Upper Midwest at a benefit-to-cost ratio for consumers of up to three to one. The consumer savings are primarily from relieving congestion points in the grid that cause energy price increases, as well as from fuel cost savings driven by the new generation, in this case largely wind.
With more than 620 clean energy projects currently in the MISO Queue — totaling nearly 90,000 MW of generation — it’s urgent to address the transmission system bottleneck. Regionally-focused transmission upgrades not only expand access to the lowest-cost power by connecting prime solar and wind terrain with customer demand centers, they also enable grid operators to enhance reliability by dispatching from a more geographically diverse set of resources.
While it may be too late for MTEP20, it’s not for next year’s MTEP21 process, nor for MISO’s recently announced Long-Range Transmission Planning Initiative. In an era where everything seems to happen at the speed of a mouse click, building transmission still takes time. Acting now to get the right projects into the next MISO transmission packages will ensure customers and states reap the economic, health and environmental justice benefits of a clean energy grid for decades to come. State leaders should insist on it.