By Melissa Rigney Baxter
Special to The Daily Reporter
The multimillion-dollar construction projects to get the blades spinning won’t mean much if there’s no way to transmit wind farm electricity.
So far in Wisconsin, transmission has been less of a problem than local approvals and harnessing the wind, but that could change as the state reaches farther west for renewable energy.
“Connecting wind in Wisconsin is not very challenging at all,” said Michael Vickerman, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin. “Where you see all the wind projects in eastern Wisconsin, they are close to existing transmission lines.”
We Energies considered 118 potential sites for the recently approved Glacier Hills Wind Park in Columbia County, said Brian Manthey, utility spokesman. We Energies considered many factors, including the most efficient transmission.
Combined with access to wind and area demographics, transmission is a top priority when evaluating an area for wind turbines, Vickerman said.
“Without transmission,” he said, “there is no product to sell.”
While Wisconsin wind is easy to capture and transmit, that is not the case in the wind-rich areas in the Dakotas, western Minnesota and Iowa.
“There are huge resources of wind west of Wisconsin,” said Charlie Higley, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin.
Transmitting those resources to Wisconsin and throughout the region is a challenge, he said, as the electric grid is not as expanded in those areas.
“Our commission is involved in this exact question,” Higley said. “How much transmission is needed to help move energy throughout the Midwest?”
There are several regional studies focusing on transmission and its effect on expanding energy demand and renewable energy sources.
Eric Callisto, chairman of the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, is co-chairman of the Upper Midwest Transmission Development Initiative through the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator organization. The initiative has been studying regional cooperation for grid expansion in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Callisto said Wisconsin’s transmission lines have been improved and expanded over the years for reliability. That has offered the added benefit of easily transmitting wind energy.
“But we don’t have the kind of (wind) resource we see in the west,” Callisto said. “Transmission build out will be an issue as Wisconsin and the rest of the country look at the Midwestern resource.”
As the demand for renewable energy increases, reaching beyond the state’s borders will be a necessity.
“Wisconsin will have a blend of different renewable resources to meet its needs,” Callisto said.
Yet transmitting wind energy is not the main factor in deciding to improve or expand transmission lines, said Anne Spaltholz, spokeswoman for American Transmission Co. LLC, Waukesha.
“Unless they improve reliability or have economic benefits, there probably aren’t very many transmission projects being justified simply based on moving renewable energy,” she said.
ATC has connected 600 megawatts of wind energy to the grid in Wisconsin.
“Those wind farms and turbines have been located near existing transmission infrastructure,” Spaltholz said.
But the system is expanding. Figuring out how it grows and who will pay for it are two important issues grabbing the attention of the three study groups associated with MISO, Callisto said.
“Between these three efforts,” he said, “we’ll get to a solution that works for the upper Midwest and, more broadly, for the MISO footprint.”
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