Gridlock on electric 'highways' could stymie renewable
Northern New England is turning to the sun, wind
and waste wood for clean, renewable power, but there's
a serious problem: the threat of gridlock on electricity
A prime example is New Hampshire's northern Coos
County, where there are proposals to build renewable
energy plants with roughly 460 megawatts of capacity
- two-thirds of the proposed renewable projects in
the state - to run over a transmission line that can
only handle 100 megawatts.
The bottleneck is in Whitefield, the end of a transmission
loop that runs through Berlin and Lost Nation.
Projects are approved on a first-come, first-served
basis, and the first in line, Noble Environmental
Power, stands ready to claim the entire 100 megawatts
in 2009 for a wind park. That will leave the other
proposals to wither and die if investors, electricity
consumers or the government don't spend $200 million
to upgrade 100 miles of line.
Even if the money were available now, the upgrade
could take six years to complete, presenting investors
with another hurdle - time.
Last month, backers of a proposed 70-megawatt biomass
plant in Groveton announced they had had enough, at
least for now. Joshua Levine, project developer for
Tamarack Energy, a partner in North Country Renewable
Energy's plant, said the project is on hold despite
the $1 million already spent on it.
The plant would burn wood chips, low-grade wood from
logging operations and other clean wood readily available
in the economically stressed region.
But investors declined to put up more money to hold
onto land options, and Levine said Tamarack is now
looking south to Connecticut and Massachusetts, where
transmission is less a problem.
As third in line in Coos County, Levine's group would
need Noble to drop not just the 100-megawatt wind
project, but a second, 146-megawatt wind project.
State and regional regulators acknowledge the hurdles
- especially in northern New Hampshire - but don't
have ready solutions. A bill before the New Hampshire
Senate would have the state be ready to act if no
regional solution is forthcoming.
ISO New England, which manages power for the region,
is considering changing rules so more of the costs
of transmission upgrades could be shared regionally.
But as things stand now, backers of projects generally
must pay for upgrades needed to connect them to the
"None of this is a real speedy process," acknowledges
Michael Harrington, senior regional policy adviser
for the state Public Utilities Commission.
Officials in Maine, which leads New England in installed
wind power capacity, have studied withdrawing from
ISO, partly to speed progress on renewable energy
Critics including the Conservation Law Foundation
and New Hampshire's consumer advocate say that in
addition to renewables, ISO should be more aggressive
in promoting conservation to reduce the need for additional
One reason for surging interest in such projects
is a two-pronged effort by states to create economic
incentives for renewables.
Some of the incentives are in the Regional Greenhouse
Gas Initiative, a compact of the six New England states
and four others to reduce greenhouse gases from fossil-fuel
Others are standards, which vary in each New England
state, for how much power utilities must get from
renewable sources. The utilities, through their customers,
subsidize growth in renewables.
New Hampshire became the last New England state to
establish renewable standards for utilities last spring.
To reduce the need for foreign oil and expensive natural
gas, the state set a goal of getting 25 percent of
its electricity from renewable sources by 2025.
New Hampshire utilities began spending millions of
dollars this year to subsidize regional producers
of renewable power - wind, solar, biomass, hydroelectric.
The required proportion of renewable power will gradually
increase over time.
Electricity customers already are seeing small increases
in their monthly bills to pay for the subsidy, which
an economic study predicts will produce a net benefit
in the long run.
If there isn't enough renewable power for sale -
which currently is the case - utilities will pay into
a state fund to foster renewable growth.
The debate over the law brought to light the threat
that inadequate transmission capacity could kill projects
proposed for the North Country.
At a meeting in Concord in August, top ISO executives
Kathleen Carrigan and Stephen Whitley said the crux
of the problem is that renewable generators are locating
in remote areas, far from major transmission lines,
and all new generators must pay to connect to the
grid unless they are deemed necessary to improve reliability
or efficiency for the region.
But a shovel must be in the ground before that determination
can be made for any new project, Carrigan and Whitley
Frustrated developers say they can't get investors
without being able to assure them there will be transmission
capacity at an affordable price.
Levine's group estimated upgrade costs at $5 million
to $7 million, only to potentially face a bill of
$50 million or more for line improvements the project
might have to share with others who wouldn't have
to pay. If a transmission upgrade could be assured
at a reasonable cost in a reasonable time frame, the
project could be revived, he said.
Levine said renewable projects locate in remote
areas because people don't want a 400-foot wind tower
or a biomass plant nearby.
"We have a culture in New England that is very accepting
to the idea of renewable energy, but not to saying,
'Yes, I will have one of these plants in my back yard,"
Other states are struggling with similar issues.
In a recent report, New Hampshire regulators cited
Texas as an example. Texas adopted renewable energy
standards in 1999 with no special provisions for transmission
interconnection. Three years ago, the state followed
up by making it easier to build transmission lines
to encourage wind parks, the report said.
Carrigan said California is building a transmission
line to a remote site in hopes renewable generators
will build there.
"We do not do that in New England," she said.
She said potential solutions include having the state's
largest electric utility, Public Service Company of
New Hampshire, do the work and bill its customers
over time. Others suggest that renewable developers
band together and share costs or that the state sell
bonds that would be repaid over time by the new plants.
Levine said developers aren't looking at northern
New Hampshire just to avoid more densely populated
areas. He said the North Country also has what it
takes to make the power: wood chips from forests and
wind from mountain ridges. The plants also would mean
jobs in a region economically battered by the loss
of pulp and paper mills.
Meanwhile, ISO estimates that New England will need
at least 8,000 megawatts of generating capacity more
than its current 31,000 by 2025, Whitley said.
State officials estimate that New Hampshire could
contribute 1,064 megawatts of new renewable energy
by 2025. The estimate assumes that incentives in state
law will be effective and that regional demand will
"You could develop over $1 billion worth of projects
... in Coos County," Levine said.
He tries to remain optimistic that will happen,
but the transmission hurdle is daunting. Investors
need to know the power has a way south.
"We have too much uncertainty, too much risk now,"
___ On the net: