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A Highway for the 21st Century:
Tres Amigas Plans to Transform the Grid

Feb 1, 2011 - Paul Korzeniowski -

FOUNDED IN 1909, CLOVIS, N.M., SEEMS LIKE A TYPICAL, rural, small town. With a population of 32,667, the city is home to peanut and cotton farms, and ranches focused on meat and dairy production. Yet despite its outward appearance, this small, sleepy community may soon become an energy industry epicenter, one linking the nation's autonomous energy grids and creating a paradigm shift in how energy is produced and distributed in the United States.

Tres Amigas is the company behind this potential transformation. The company signed a 99-year lease with the state of New Mexico and plans to develop 22 square miles of land, or about 14,400 acres, into an energy superstation. The startup wants to build a three-way AC/DC interconnection that would link the Eastern Interconnection, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas and the Western Electricity Coordinating Council. In plans viewed as bold or even brash, the station will rely on cutting-edge technology to move energy from grid to grid.

But the project faces a number of potential technical, business and political hurdles. The underlying technology is nascent and has never been used at the scale that Tres Amigas has proposed. Estimates are that it would take $500 million to $1 billion in capital to meet the project's goals, and where the money will come from and how viable the firm's business model is are both unclear. Last, established energy producers, local governments and federal regulators could block or even unhinge the project on a whim. So while Tres Amigas's plans have great potential, there are also significant doubts about whether or not they will make their way from blueprints to thriving business.

There are now nine U.S. connections among the three grids. Seven link the Eastern Interconnection and WECC grids and two connect ERCOT to the Eastern Interconnection. No interconnection exists between ERCOT and WECC. Most of the converter links carry 100-200 megawatts of electricity although the largest supports 600 megawatts of power. The total capacity of the nine connections is about 2 gigawatts.

Initially, Tres Amigas plans to carry up to 5 gigawatts of electricity, and it is being designed to scale up to 30 gigawatts. To support the project, the company plans to deploy three highvoltage direct-current terminals. Each will have 5 gigawatts of capacity and be stationed about two miles apart in a triangleshaped loop. Once completed, the interconnect has the potential to change how energy is distributed, breaking down many of the traditional barriers, so suppliers can ship energy across the country rather than being limited to immediate areas. Construction of the lines is expected to begin in the fall and the interconnect is slated to be fully operational in 2014.

An endeavor of this size and scope has never been undertaken: converter links generally limited to hundreds of megawatts exchanged at distances of hundreds of yards rather than miles. "Because of the Tres Amigas project's size and scope, there is significant risk involved in trying to get all of the different technology elements to work together," said Jay Holman, research manager with IDC Energy Insights. The company is working with American Superconductor, which has invested $1.8 million for a minority stake in Tres Amigas, to build the superconductors.

In addition, the bulk of the megawatts entering the superstation are expected to be generated from renewable energy sources whose production can fluctuate dramatically. So the energy interconnect must be able to handle numerous charge-discharge cycles. Tres Amigas plans to use batteries to provide short-term energy storage and to keep the system balanced.

The colossal plan comes from a miniscule management team. In fact, Tres Amigas is an appropriate name for the company because it literally has only three full-time employees. Their efforts are being complemented by a virtual team of a few dozen specialists who have taken on various engineering and marketing tasks. To realize its vision, the startup will need from $500 million to $1 billion. Where that money will come from is unclear as the company has been mute about its financing to date as well as its future plans.

The developers of the fledgling energy superstation do envision generating revenue in a couple of ways. "We will be a toll taker and charge every company that sends or receives energy over our network," said David Stidham, Tres Amigas's chief operating officer. In addition, the company plans to offer storage capabilities to its customers and service features designed to enhance grid reliability and power quality.

The viability of the business plan revolves around other companies' willingness to buy and sell energy in broader geographic regions. "Certainly, the renewable energy companies are interested in Tres Amigas," said Michael Giberson a research associate at the Center for Energy Commerce at Texas Tech University. "They have been hamstrung and largely unable to move power out of their immediate area."

Established energy companies may not be as willing to endorse the model. "We have seen push back from the fossil fuel suppliers who think that more use of renewable energy means less use of their services," admitted Tres Amigas's Stidham.

These companies have some powerful allies. In the spring, governors of 10 states - including New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Virginia - sent a letter to congressional leaders questioning the idea of the new transmission superhighway. Instead, they urged Congress to support their own regional energy solutions.

There has also been resistance from the Texas Public Utility Commission. "The Texas PUC fears that energy flowing out of the state could increase costs for local consumers," said Texas Tech University's Giberson. Tres Amigas's Stidham said the company is willing to move ahead linking two rather than three grids if Texas balks at the connections.

To date, Tres Amigas has circumvented potential regulatory barriers. In March, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted Tres Amigas's request for authorization to sell transmission services at negotiated rates on its proposed supertransmission station.

But the company will have to clear many regulatory and business hurdles before its transmission lines are built and energy starts to flow over them. In the meantime, the sun beats down and the dust blows over Clovis's open fields and questions abound about the area's - and the nation's - energy future.


Technical Articles - index of technical articles related to GENI's vision. Includes: articles written by GENI and about GENI concerning the proof of concept and some industry reports relating to the GENI vision

Updated: 2016/06/30

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