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A set of new electric transmission lines, developed with the help of the Great Plains Institute, is under construction to connect more Midwestern wind power to large cities in the east. The Midcontinent Independent Systems Operator (MISO), which operates the electric grid in the Midwest, has been moving forward with the Multi-Value Project (MVP) portfolio since 2011.
This project portfolio consists of 17 transmission projects spanning the northern footprint of the Midwest region at a total cost of $6.4 billion. The development and approval process took three years and significant effort from GPI to garner stakeholder consensus and support, which ultimately led to the portfolio’s approval. When complete, these 17 projects will enable 25 gigawatts (GW) of wind capacity to come online, delivering 41 million megawatt-hours (MWh) of energy annually throughout the MISO footprint.
Traditional Coal Power Plants in the Midwest
Throughout the twentieth century, our energy demand was largely met with coal-fired power plants, often located near large load centers. A transmission system was built to support these power plants and deliver their electricity throughout the region.
But, federal policies such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and the Clean Power Plan are expected to drive the retirement of an estimated 12.6 GW and 14 GW of coal power, respectively, by the year 2035. If the grid is not ready to replace this retiring capacity with renewables, it will largely be replaced by natural gas, limiting the emissions reduction potential of these federal policies.
From a grid operations and utility business perspective, natural gas and coal power generation are relatively similar to each other. A gas facility has similar fuel supply management logistics as coal, and its power output can be reliably dispatched to the grid, just like a coal plant. Most importantly, natural gas turbines can be added to existing or retiring coal facilities, which are often already close to load centers like large cities. Thus, gas buildout is not dependent on new transmission construction. While switching to natural gas would reduce emissions by about 50% from coal, natural gas combustion still results in about 50.3 kg/GJ. The Midwestern electricity system will still be overwhelmingly dependent on carbon intensive fossil fuels.
In 2009, MISO created the Dispatchable Intermittent Resource (DIR) asset classification, which enabled system operators to control wind resources’ output with much more granularity, resulting in fewer curtailments. However, persistent congestion was still a problem. The existing transmission system was simply inadequate to accommodate the amount of wind energy rapidly coming online to meet state-level renewable energy policy goals. That’s where the MVP portfolio comes in.
Wind Potential in the Midwest Held Back by Transmission Infrastructure
The alternative to a buildout of natural gas is the robust deployment of large-scale renewable generation such as wind energy. To do so, GPI is helping MISO and its stakeholders develop a transmission system to enable large amounts of wind energy to be delivered to load centers in the Midwest. Wind energy is most efficiently harnessed where it exists in vast quantities, namely western Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Iowa in MISO’s footprint. Unfortunately, these “sweet spots” for wind energy do not coincide with large load centers. MISO’s operators need sufficient transmission capacity to deliver this clean energy to where it can be used.
New Transmission for Wind Power
The MVP projects are unique because unlike other transmission projects, they are not driven purely by market efficiency or reliability needs. They are driven by public policy goals; specifically, renewable portfolio standards.
Some of the MVP transmission lines directly allow wind plants to interconnect to the transmission system. For example, the Badger-Coulee Line running through southwest Wisconsin has 2,700 megawatts (MW) of wind capacity contractually and/or conditionally dependent on its completion.
In 2016, MISO launched a new study to determine when the next round of MVP projects may be needed. Some states, like Iowa and Minnesota, have seen significant wind energy development as a result of MISO’s improved transmission infrastructure and the federally-extended Investment Tax Credit. With 17,000 MWs of wind moving through the interconnection queue, and more in the earlier stages of development, MISO and its stakeholders are continuing to develop transmission projects to unlock the vast Midwest wind energy potential.
Result: 50% Reduction in Electric GHGs in the Midwest by 2050
In 2016, MISO modeling found that new transmission could result in an almost 50% reduction in both fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Note that this modeling exercise was not cost-optimized, so actual 2050 fuel mix will differ. However, this modeling exercise emphasized the value of a robust transmission grid for renewable energy. The Great Plains Institute’s ongoing work in this area will help ensure the completion of the current MVP portfolio, enable ongoing wind energy development to reduce the build out of natural gas generation, and support the electric system’s transition to clean energy.