Recently a story appeared in this paper regarding the electric transmission system and how its shortcomings are affecting the ability for all energy generation sources to provide Maine and the region with competitively priced electricity (“Inadequate transmission lines keeping some Maine wind power off the grid,” Aug. 4).
As with most energy matters, the facts surrounding our power grid are complex and require some digging into details to understand.
It is instructive to view our system and its limitations like a highway: Too many cars on the road and roads in need of repair cause traffic jams, leading to reduced commerce and investment. This problem is effectively what is happening in Maine with our antiquated transmission system: We have too many “cars” trying to drive on roads that are too small and too rickety.
Unfortunately, the real loser in a constrained grid is the ratepayer, because the most cost-effective electricity sometimes cannot reach our homes and businesses. Instead, what is often sent across the power lines is more costly and more environmentally harmful electricity.
A recent study by the manager of the regional power grid, ISO-New England, found that quadrupling the amount of wind power with its “free fuel” will reduce consumer expenses in the energy market by $1 billion per year. ISO’s 2010 wind study revealed having wind supply 20 percent of our region’s electricity needs reduces harmful air pollutants up to 26 percent and carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 12 million tons per year, a 25 percent reduction.
It is essential to note the cause of our outdated transmission infrastructure has nothing to do with the recent growth of Maine’s homegrown renewable energy industry.
The story noted that construction of a major transmission corridor in Maine last year led to curtailments of approximately 20 percent at four wind projects.
While this is true, it is also true that this was only a temporary situation caused by de-energizing major sections of transmission lines in order to safely perform work on them. Now that this work is complete, we expect significantly less curtailment in the area in the future, certainly much less than 10 percent.
In recent years, New England has begun to upgrade its aging transmission system (e.g., Central Maine Power’s Maine Power Reliability Program project) to ensure it is able to keep the lights on. As of this summer, the total estimated cost of transmission upgrades proposed, planned and under construction for reliability purposes unrelated to wind power was about $5.7 billion.
Due to underinvestment for years, the electric grid across New England (and the country) is dated. During that time, our state has also changed in many different ways. Decades ago we had fewer people and therefore lower demand for power and less development pressures on the grid.
Grid upgrades can be a positive sign of economic and population growth that fosters new employment and investment opportunities for future generations. However, regardless of what new energy sources — hydropower, natural gas, wind or biomass — we add to the transmission system, upgrades are a necessity.
There are ongoing discussions about reforming the way transmission projects are paid for across New England.
One particular approach that is gaining traction in certain corners is commonly referred to as “beneficiary pays,” in which those states that may benefit from a transmission upgrade are responsible for its cost. One example is the development of pollution-free and inflation-proof wind power in Maine, which is in high demand because of the clean energy requirements in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
If those states are poised to benefit from our clean energy sources, they will foot the bill to build a system capable of reliably and cost-effectively delivering these sources.
In fact, grid upgrades to deliver more wind power will allow the entire New England region to lower energy costs and decrease toxic emissions. Despite these undeniable benefits, wind farms will not get built unless the grid can accommodate their power, as their revenues (like all energy sources) come directly from the ability to generate and sell electricity to consumers across the Northeast.
As we add more energy sources to our system, we must recognize our own natural resource advantages: wind, water and the woods.
Maine-made clean electricity offers not only a critical economic growth opportunity at a time when few, if any, industries are poised to invest billions of dollars, but also a way to increase our energy independence and protect our environment.
Jeremy Payne is executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association and Francis Pullaro is executive director of Renewable Energy New England.