Upgraded power grid vital for alternative energy

KANSAS - Behind every graceful wind farm generating power stands the decidedly less-glamorous high-voltage lines transporting it.

The two go hand in hand. Without a more robust electrical grid, wind-driven energy in America won't happen, say experts.

For Kansas and other states of the windy, sparsely populated High Plains, it means utilities will spend billions of dollars to build high-voltage lines.

Last month, Prairie Wind Transmission and ITC Great Plains agreed to split a project to build a 200-mile-long 765-kilovolt line that links western Kansas with Wichita and lines from Nebraska and Oklahoma.

The two competed against each other before agreeing to each take half of the project after the state strongly encouraged them to reach a compromise.

Prairie Wind is a partnership of Westar Energy and Electric Transmission America — a joint venture of subsidiaries of American Electric Power and MidAmerican Energy Holdings.

ITC Great Plains of Topeka is a subsidiary of ITC Holdings, which is based in Michigan.

The lines must first get approval from the Kansas Corporation Commission and the Southwest Power Pool, before they are built. The Southwest Power Pool is a federally sponsored cooperative of more than 50 utilities in nine states that regulates the operation of the grid.

It will take four to 10 years to get the lines into operation, said Carl Huslig, president of ITC Great Plains.

The 765-kilovolt lines are the largest capacity lines built in the country. They carry great loads of power a long way with relatively little loss, say the utilities.

Other utilities are seeking to construct such lines in order to reinforce the nation's power grid and facilitate alternative energy.

The western Kansas power lines would also carry energy generated by the proposed 895-megawatt Sunflower Electric coal plant near Holcomb.

The project is necessary to develop the state's wind potential, say the utilities.

"There is not really the capability left in the system to develop much more wind in western Kansas," said Kelly Harrison, president of Prairie Winds and Westar's vice president for transmission operations.

The key things to know about wind power are these:

• To cut carbon emissions, the amount of wind energy supplied by utilities all over the country is likely to grow dramatically over the next decade.

• The greatest amount of wind is on the High Plains.

• It can't be stored and has to be consumed immediately. Because wind generation dies when the wind dies, utilities typically estimate that only 20 percent of their power demand can be supplied by wind.

Kansas has just entered the top 10 for wind generation, with slightly more than 1,000 megawatts of capacity, but it has the potential to be third with thousands more megawatts, according to studies.

The untapped potential, plus the political demand for up to 20 percent of the nation's energy supply to be renewable, is expected to lead to new wind farms in western Kansas and the western sides of other Plains states over the next decade. That growth, however, has been temporarily shut off by the credit crunch.

Much of that power will be exported out of Kansas to other states in the region.

The area covered by the Southwest Power Pool has the potential for more than 70,000 megawatts of wind potential, Huslig said.

"We can't consume it, so we'd have to export it to other parts of the country," he said.

The power would go to the other utilities of the Southwest Power Pool, and beyond.

The electricity will displace existing electricity generated in those markets and send it farther east. Ultimately, the wind power produced in western Kansas will be credited with reducing carbon emissions on the East Coast.

The cost of the line is $600 million to $800 million, but Harrison and Huslig said they will seek approval to spread the cost over the ratepayers of the entire Southwest Power Pool, rather than just those in Kansas.

That includes Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, and parts of Missouri, Mississippi, Texas and New Mexico.

Harrison said that Westar ratepayers would be liable for 12 percent of the cost.

The benefit for Kansas ratepayers is that generating and then transferring the excess wind energy out of the Southwest Power Pool is almost like exporting any other product.

The power will be sought by other regions who have to meet mandated minimums for alternative energy, said Huslig.

Those sales would serve to reduce rates for Kansas ratepayers.

So, Huslig said, Kansas could see more wind farms, more wind farm manufacturing plants and lower rates in the future.

But it depends on getting the power lines, say the utilities.

"Kansas will not be able to develop its wind potential without this, period," Harrison said.



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