Seems like there should be a better solution for this.
In 2005, the Texas Legislature approved the development of a network of electric transmission lines to send wind and solar power from West Texas to population centers in other parts of the state. The landmark project transformed the renewable energy industry and the slice of West Texas that Rep. Drew Darby calls home.
Metallic fields of photovoltaic solar panels now stretch across once bare scrub land. Lines of sky-scraping wind turbines reach to the horizon. And with those renewable energy projects came “some of our only opportunities for economic development” in rural Texas, said Darby, a Republican from San Angelo.
But those opportunities are at risk as companies cancel or postpone new wind and solar farms, and the list of planned projects keeps getting shorter. One key reason: generators can’t be sure that they can get their power to market.
The rapid growth of renewable energy, particularly wind power, has outstripped the carrying capacity of transmission lines. Even when demand soars and electricity supplies run short, the state’s grid manager, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, must limit the power West Texas wind and solar farms can sell into the grid because of transmission constraints.
“I started seeing some projects go off the boards, and companies were saying they’re not going to build,” Darby said. “I asked why, and they said ‘We’ve had curtailments. We’re going to have to curtail production at certain times.’”
That West Texas has plenty of power but no place to go carries more than a little irony as policy makers and regulators focus on increasing electricity supplies following the deadly February power crisis. ERCOT is forecasting record power demand this summer, with a reserve margin — the cushion of extra generation available when supplies get tight — that’s higher than in recent years, but still well below the margins with which other grids operate.
Even as parts of the state bake in the summer heat and homeowners crank up air-conditioning units, the transmission limits mean the excess power generated out West won’t make it to where demand will be highest.
Ross Baldick, an emeritus professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, said West Texas transmission upgrades completed in 2014 can transport about 18,500 megawatts of electricity, but more than 20,000 megawatts of wind energy alone are generated in the area. Due to other technical constraints, grid officials must limit power through those lines to less than 12,000 megawatts to keep them working properly.
Think about it like water pipes, Baldick said. One main pipe feeds smaller pipes that provide water to individual homes. If you try to force more and more water into the pipes, you reach a limit where the pipes could burst. To avoid that problem, you would have two choices: build more pipes to offset the stress on the existing pipes, or limit the amount of water flowing through the pipes.
Those are the choices for the power grid: build more transmission to transport increasing amounts of renewable power from the west, or limit the amount of power on the transmission lines.
As the story notes, West Texas has all of the conditions you could want for solar and wind energy generation, but none of it matters if you can’t hook it up to the grid. As a result, the projections of wind and solar energy for the year are declining. The House passed a bill by Rep. Darby to expedite the process ERCOT uses to study and plan for new transmission projects and the Public Utility Commission’s ability to approve them, but it died in the Senate. The power companies themselves aren’t going to build more transmission capacity, so here we are. Sure seems like there ought to be a better way.