Federal Regulators Allow Transmission Lines Funded by Wind Developers

February 25, 2009

Photo of a pair of large transmission towers, each carrying six power lines, with the lines stretching toward other towers that recede into the distance. Each tower consists of an elaborate metal lattice.

Access to transmission lines is a critical factor for renewable energy development in much of the United States.
Credit: Warren Gretz, NREL

Independent companies that intend to build new transmission lines face a financing dilemma: under current federal rules, they must open all access to that transmission line to a competitive bidding process, but they need to make significant investments prior to reaching that point. In other words, they need to attract investors before they have a single customer. They also face a chicken-and-egg dilemma: power generators won't support a transmission line unless a utility says it needs the line to supply its customers, and utilities won't support a transmission line unless there is a power generator backing it up. So two companies—Chinook Power Transmission, LLC and Zephyr Power Transmission, LLC, both of which are owned by TransCanada Corporation—proposed to take a new approach, entering into an agreement to provide half of the capacity on their proposed new transmission lines to wind developers. The agreement will help finance the transmission lines and convince utilities that the project is viable, while still leaving half of the transmission line capacity available for other power generators.

On February 19, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved the new approach, allowing the two projects to go forward. FERC noted that it needs to show greater flexibility for such "merchant" power line projects, because the project developers assume all the market risks, and unlike electric utilities, they have no set pool of customers from which they can recover their project costs. The two projects include a 1,100-mile transmission line running from Medicine Bow, Wyoming, to just south of Las Vegas, Nevada, and a 1,000-mile transmission line that runs from Harlowtown, Montana, to the same ending point in Nevada. Each transmission line will have a capacity of 3,000 megawatts (MW), which means that each line has an agreement with a wind power developer that plans to build 1,500 MW of wind power by the time the lines are completed in 2014. For comparison, at the end of 2008, Montana had only 272 MW of wind power capacity, while Wyoming had 676 MW of wind capacity. The companies did not name the wind power developers, although several wind developers intervened in favor of the proposal. See the FERC press release and decision (PDF 116 KB), as well as the most recent list of wind power projects from the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). Download Adobe Reader.

The proposed transmission lines are significant for a number of technical reasons, as well. They will be the first transmission lines to ship large amounts of wind power from windy northern states to distant customers in the Southwest. To achieve this feat without losing too much energy, the lines will be high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) lines, operating at voltages of 500 kilovolts. Such HVDC lines can carry 3,000 MW of power on a single string of towers, while multiple towers would be needed for traditional lines using alternating current. According to TransCanada, each transmission line will cost about $3 billion, even though they follow the same path from Boise, Idaho, through Nevada. The construction of such "green power superhighways" is advocated in a white paper that was released on February 17 by AWEA and the Solar Energy Industries Association. Incidentally, FERC will also hold a technical conference on March 2 to examine how large amounts of renewable generation can be integrated into the U.S. electrical grid. See TransCanada's project description, the AWEA press release and white paper (PDF 3.0 MKB), and FERC's announcement about its technical conference, which will be webcast live at no cost.