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The Wind Solar Alliance says U.S. corporations need to play a bigger role to avoid future transmission bottlenecks.

If U.S. corporations are serious about powering operations with renewable energy, they need to play a bigger role advocating for transmission projects, according to a recent report from a renewable energy group.

The Wind Solar Alliance, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that advocates for renewable energy, says while American companies and other large customers have expressed a wish for lots of renewable power, and while lots of wind projects are planned to fulfill those wishes, there is a shortage of power lines to get the electricity where it needs to be.

A solution, according to Kevin O’Rourke, the director of public affairs for the Alliance, is for corporate customers to lobby their regional transmission organizations (RTOs) to plan transmission lines that will allow corporate customers to move towards renewable generation.

Large electricity customers plan to massively increase their use of renewable energy. The Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, a coalition of more than 400 corporations and governments, has purchased 13.1 GW of renewable power so far. By 2025, the members intend to increase that by 46.9 GW.

Right now, RTO operators that plan for transmission across the country are not incorporating corporate demand into their planning, O’Rourke said. And corporate power purchasers, for the most part, “are looking for ‘the deal’, not thinking about how they’re going to get it.”

Renewable projects, primarily wind farms, now or recently under construction will use transmission lines that were planned a few years ago, O’Rourke said. The Midcontinent Independent System Operator developed the MVP lines, and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas strung its CREZ lines.

“But there’s no big build behind that,” O’Rourke said, adding that corporations won’t be able to meet their renewable energy targets until another generation of transmission projects gets going. And that likely will take a while. Although large solar arrays and wind farms can be developed in under a year, he estimated that transmission lines require between two and seven years.

Walmart largely has been able to find renewable power with the requisite transmission lines, but transmission constraints “could be a disqualifier” in the near term, said Chris Hendrix, the company’s director of markets and compliance.

Walmart is one of the nation’s leading buyers of renewable power, and started joining RTOs in 2003. It now has a vote on transmission projects throughout the country except California.

But having a vote doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, Hendrix said.

“Paying – that’s always the problem,” he said.

Transmission lines that cross from one regional transmission organization to another have particular challenges in determining who benefits and who should pay the bill.

As global manager of renewable power for General Motors, Rob Threlkeld speaks often with both RTO and utility managers about transmission. When he depended primarily on power-purchase agreements with wind producers, “That would require a significant amount of transmission to be built.”

While he expects transmission to continue to be a challenge in meeting his company’s renewable energy goals, he is more focused now on green tariffs and sees a new resource on the horizon: the transmission capacity left in the wake of closing coal plants.

“As we shift the generation fleet,” he said, the question is, “How do you repurpose existing transmission?” Wind farms used to rely on all new transmission lines to bring the power to where it was needed, he said. But he sees that changing as coal plants close and reduce the load on parts of the transmission system.

“Don’t build new all the way; build new half the way,” he said. “Those are the types of discussions we have.”

Transmission development tends to present a chicken-and-egg type quandary, O’Rourke said.

“RTOs are naturally conservative and want to make sure there are going to be buyers,” he said. But developers of wind and other forms of generation want to know they’ll be able to get their power to market.

The Texas grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, tackled the problem. First the council identified the areas with the best wind, then considered various possible route options and imagined what might result from a range of scenarios.

“They took a bit of a risk because they didn’t know if a developer was going to show up and build,” O’Rourke said. “They did it, built it, and the lines were subscribed right away. They’re full of wind projects now… There’s no reason other regions can’t do that as well.”

Karen Uhlenhuth

Karen spent most of her career reporting for the Kansas City Star, focusing at various times on local and regional news, and features. More recently, she was employed as a researcher and writer for a bioethics center at a children’s hospital in Kansas City. Karen covers Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.