ISO should call for offshore wind transmission discussion

The deadline for beginning the debate is now

NEW ENGLAND is in the midst of an energy sea change.  Brought about by the people of the region acting through their elected officials, states in the region have passed legislation directing the procurement of large sources of renewable energy, including up to 3,200 megawatts of offshore wind in Massachusetts.  The federal government is a partner with the region, having made large lease areas for offshore wind available in federal waters.  And interest in bringing this zero-carbon, fuel-secure energy to the region is high.  In the recent auction for lease rights conducted by the federal government, three winning bidders paid over $400 million for rights to build wind farms in federal waters. The jobs are already following with developers and manufactures moving to the region; a good example is turbine manufacturer Vestas-MHI’s announcement that is plans to open a US headquarters in Boston.

While Massachusetts, and other states in the region, rapidly move ahead on making these projects a reality that provide residents with fossil-free, low-cost energy, the question that has emerged is: how to get the power to land from miles over-the-horizon off the coast?  The simple answer is: transmission lines – large, high voltage buried submarine cables sized to move bulk amounts of electricity over large distances.

But what does that transmission look like?  Is it planned and deliberate, optimizing the existing transmission system, the best landing points, and sharing common costs among co-located projects (the federal water wind lease areas are all grouped together)? Might states ultimately even share the costs of bringing the power to shore?  Or will we pursue an ad hoc program where a line is built to each wind farm, each farther out and more expensive than the last with each state paying for each line individually?   How Massachusetts and other New England states choose to answer that question at this stage will make all the difference regarding the ultimate cost of the transmission, the expandability and usefulness of the system, and the environmental impacts of numerous sea-to-shore projects.

Nearly a decade ago, the federal government created a mechanism whereby states can cooperatively plan for transmission to maximize common facilities and the existing infrastructure to meet just these sorts of “public policy” goals.  The process looks a lot like the comprehensive regional planning process that has been used for years to meet the basic reliability needs of the power system.  In this process, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, approved rules that allow states to work with the regional grid operator and transmission system planner, ISO New England , to find the most cost-effective solution for transmission to implement public policies.

Given that we know that subsea cables to these wind farms will be installed on and under the ocean floor, the region should avail itself of this in-place mechanism to both design the best transmission solutions through the federally-approved RFP process and fund the most cost-effective solution using the federal transmission rate.  Any such planned solution will certainly be more cost effective than one-by-one radial lines, allowing a handful of well-designed cables to do the work of many more windfarm-by-windfarm solutions.  The benefits continue as fewer cables mean fewer ocean trenches as opposed to many. Common facilities allow states to share the costs of these common facilities rather than pay for them entirely on their own.  Once the transmission is in place, the cost of future wind procurements declines dramatically as the transmission portion of the projects will no long be a needed bolt-on.  With the option of this tool in the toolbox, it makes sense for the region to make use of it and get the most cost effective, least environmentally impactful transmission possible as we procure energy sources that are low cost and better for the environment.

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All that is needed to simply evaluate this option is for ISO-NE to launch what is called a public policy process. The deadline for making the request in the current cycle is…. January 15.  The suggestion of this column is that the ISO-NE exercise leadership for the region and take the necessary step – the equivalent of a press release – to launch a 45-day period in which stakeholders can comment on whether a public policy process for offshore wind is useful.

Edward N. Krapels is the CEO of Anbaric, an energy transmission company.