Wind power and Transmission By Michael Goggin (AWEA)

In a recent article for Wired magazine, Marc Gunther looks at the question of where wind farms are located and the need for new transmission. AWEA Manager of Transmission Policy Michael Goggin had this reaction (it’s been posted as a comment on the Wired site, but hasn’t shown up yet.)

Marc, thanks for interviewing me for your article. I wanted to continue the conversation by responding to a few points.

First, it’s important to point out that major investment in our transmission grid is desperately needed anyway, regardless of whether we are adding wind energy to our grid or not. Investment in the U.S. transmission grid has lagged for decades, and as a result consumers now unnecessarily spend tens of billions of dollars per year more than they should for electricity due to the inefficiency of the current grid and because they are unable to access lower cost sources of electricity from other regions. Consumers and businesses also lose billions of dollars per year due to power outages like the massive 2003 blackout, many of which could have been prevented if we had a stronger power grid. Hopefully, the need for wind energy will serve as the impetus for us to fix our broken transmission policies so that private companies can invest in our grid, something we should have been doing anyway. For more, see AWEA’s fact sheet on Transmission and Consumer Savings.

Second, it’s important to understand that the fundamental physics of wind power, plus the very low cost of building transmission, make it far more attractive to build wind turbines plants where the wind resource is best and build transmission to move that electricity to where it is needed, rather than building the wind farm plants in sub-optimal locations. Specifically, the amount of energy available in the wind is proportional to the cube of the wind speed, so that building a wind plant at a 12 meter/second wind site instead of a 10 m/s wind site increases the energy output of the wind plant by more than 70%.

In contrast, the cost of building transmission is very cheap, with many lines estimated to pay for themselves within a matter of years by creating the consumer savings I discussed above. Private companies are chomping at the bit to build these transmission lines, but they are simply unable to due to the regulatory morass that governs how our transmission lines are paid for and permitted. In much of the country, the policies that govern transmission cost allocation have not been updated as the electric industry structure has changed drastically in recent years, making it very difficult for these companies to build transmission. For more on our transmission policy problem, and the solutions, see the Green Power Superhighways report.

Finally, on the topic of land use that was raised by one commenter, it’s important to point out that only 2-5% of the land area of a typical wind farm is actually taken up by wind turbines and other equipment, while the remaining 95-98% can continue being used for farming, ranching, or whatever its prior use was. A 2008 report by the U.S. Department of Energy concluded that obtaining 20% of the nation’s electricity from wind energy would use less land than is currently occupied by the city of Anchorage, Alaska.

Michael Goggin, American Wind Energy Association,