Panel OKs wind farm power line upgrades

LITTLE ROCK, ARKANSAS - A Little Rock-based operator of one of the nation's regional power grids has approved $700 million worth of projects designed to move more electricity from wind farms in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas to consumers in the Midwest.

Upgrades approved by Southwest Power Pool's board of directors include five 345-kilovolt transmission lines, a 345-kilovolt transformer in Oklahoma and a link between two 345-kilovolt lines in Kansas.

The largest project is a $229 million, 250-mile line between Hale County, Texas, and Woodward, Okla. The most expensive is a $237 million, 215-mile line that will link Spearville, Kan., Hays County, Kan., and Axtell, Neb.

Oklahoma Gas & Electric Co.

operates two wind farms near Woodward with a total output of 170 megawatts and has a third, 100-megawatt plant in the works. Not all projects are tied to existing wind farms, but Southwest Power Pool officials are hopeful that new power lines will open up new areas for development.

"These transmission upgrades will be the beginning of a wind-collector grid that will enable the collection, use and possible export of renewable energy beyond SPP," Les Dillahunty, Southwest Power Pool's senior vice president of engineering and regulatory policy, said in a prepared statement.

As the nation looks to reduce its dependence on foreign energy sources and lower carbon emissions blamed for global warming, wind power has gained considerable momentum in recent years.

Between 2002 and 2006, wind-powered electricity has increased more than 150 percent, according to the Energy Information Administration.

According to one Department of Energy report, wind could provide as much as 20 percent of the nation's energy needs by 2030. Within the past year, wind-based generation within Southwest Power Pool's nine-state region increased more than 65 percent, as more than a dozen new wind farms entered service.

Funding for the projects will come largely from federally approved "postage stamp" rates applied to Southwest Power Pool's 54 members in Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Mississippi, spokesman Emily Pennel said.

They include investor-owned and municipal utilities, generation and transmission cooperatives, state authorities and independent power providers, who typically pass such costs on to their customers.

Projects are expected to take about three years to complete, depending on siting issues faced along each route, Pennel said. Until such projects are finished, customers will not see costs reflected in their monthly bills.

Yet, improved efficiency - through less congestion on power lines and more reliable service - should deliver more savings than costs for at least 10 years, Southwest Power Pool officials said.

"Transmission costs are typically 10 percent of a customer's bill," Pennel said. "While each customer would pay about 90 cents more for transmission, the improved efficiency would save about $2 a month."

Southwest Power Pool directors also approved a report that recommends new methods of planning additional "extra high voltage" projects within the next 20 years to respond to "national energy priorities."

One major objective is the construction of a "transmission backbone" that links Southwest Power Pool's east and west regions, and possibly other regional grids in the eastern and western U.S.

Just 104 of 40,364 miles of transmission lines that Southwest Power Pool operated in January were rated at 500 kilovolts. The initial plan for future construction is expected to be completed in early 2011.

"It has been challenging for SPP and our members to manage the complexity of our different processes," Southwest Power Pool Chief Operating Officer Carl Monroe said. "It's time we simplify and focus on the big picture... building a grid that will benefit customers across the region for the long-term."


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