Sunday, May 26, 2024

For offshore wind aspirations to become reality, transmission hurdles must be cleared

by BIZ Magazine

Robert Zullo, States Newsroom

President Joe Biden’s administration laid out ambitious additional goals last month to boost offshore wind power generation, one of the American renewable energy industry’s emerging wide open frontiers.

The federal announcements come as coastal states across the country are increasingly setting offshore wind energy targets, seeking to capture not just clean energy but the potentially big economic benefits of their ports serving as hubs for the vessels, blade manufacturingcables and other infrastructure needed to get turbines more than 850 feet tall installed miles out at sea. 

But amid news releases touting megawatt targets and jobs, there’s been less attention on the challenge of bringing all that electricity ashore and connecting it to a grid that was designed to bring power to the coast, not the other way around.

“It is so exciting to see the goals put forward and it’s a great signal and clear signal to the industry,” said Maddy Urbish, head of government affairs and market strategy for New Jersey at Ørsted North America. The Danish company, a world leader in offshore wind, currently has 5,000 megawatts of projects under development or under construction in U.S. waters.  

“So that’s incredibly encouraging and exciting for the industry. When we get down to the challenges we see from the grid it becomes immediately less sexy,” Urbish said. 

And, the new Inflation Reduction Act undoes a Trump administration moratorium on federal offshore wind leases in the Southeast, potentially opening up new opportunities for Georgia, the Carolinas and Florida, though the Sunshine State’s potential is seen as limited because of a lack of strong, sustained winds near the coast.  

However, getting all that power to electric consumers will require billions in upgrades to the electric grid and a whole lot better regional planning by states and grid operators, experts say. 

“Offshore wind is big,” said Simon Mahan, executive director of the Southern Renewable Energy Association, a trade group for large renewable energy and energy storage companies. “When you bring it ashore it’s gonna have an effect on nearby generation regardless of market structure. They’re the size of nuclear reactors. … So it’s really important to do good studies.” 

Until fairly recently, renewable energy advocates say there’s been less emphasis by policymakers and grid managers on transmission infrastructure upgrades and the comprehensive regional planning needed to make mass offshore wind a reality, though the federal government and states are starting to come to grips with the scope of the problem. 

“There needs to be a lot more done than what’s being done right now and people are starting to realize that,” said Walt Musial, principal engineer and offshore wind platform lead at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “The integration of this is going to be a big job and something we have to start working on soon. These transmission projects can take longer to build than the plants themselves.”

With relatively small, stand-alone wind projects, it’s often feasible for developers to find their own solutions to interconnection, said Mike Jacobs, a senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists who focuses on renewable energy and the electric grid. Indeed, wind developers with projects farther along in the pipeline can take advantage of old thermal generation sites — like Ørsted plans to do with the former B.L. England coal-fired power plant in Upper Township, New Jersey, south of Atlantic City — as points of interconnection because of the existing grid infrastructure there. 

But with the potential scale of American offshore wind energy and the huge targets proposed by states like New Jersey, project-by-project transmission solutions won’t work, Jacobs said. 

“Now you talk about 1,000 megawatts at a time. And New Jersey wants 10 of those. The transmission needed to be upscaled on shore is significant and needs to reach further inland,” he said. “The cable you brought to the nearest connection point from water to land is going to run into something that’s going to be inadequate and needs to be upscaled.”

That means billions of dollars in upgrades that will be necessary to accommodate the offshore wind buildout contemplated by state and federal leaders and debates about planning and cost allocation involving regional transmission operators, which run much of the U.S. electric grid.

A new proposed rule by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission aims to better quantify the broader benefits of transmission upgrades, which some renewable energy proponents say could grease the wheels for the buildout required to decarbonize the grid. And the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act includes $100 million specifically earmarked for offshore wind transmission planning, modeling and analysis. 

“The fact of the matter is we need more studies, we don’t know what we don’t know,” said Mahan of the Southern Renewable Energy Association. “The IRA funding is there to help solve some of this problem.” 

There are ongoing studies as well.

Melinda Marquis, offshore wind grid integration lead at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, is leading a Department of Energy study expected to be finished next year that will identify the optimal interconnection points along the Atlantic coast. It’s one of several seeking answers to how best to incorporate offshore wind into the grid, Marquis said, and states like New York, which is pushing for 9,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2035, have done their own studies. 

“The way offshore has been deployed in the North Sea, in England for instance, is the same way the very early offshore wind plants in the U.S. are developing. That is where each offshore wind plant builds one radial connection to shore. … So each developer is picking the cheapest, best place to inject the power,” Marquis said. “There’s a limited number of points of interconnection along the Atlantic.” 

Right now, there aren’t many incentives for developers to share interconnection and transmission infrastructure, Marquis said. Her group’s study will quantify costs under various build-out scenarios, compare different transmission technologies, explore implications for grid reliability and examine effects on marine life and fisheries. 

Meanwhile, other states are realizing the importance of taking the lead on transmission planning. New York wants offshore wind projects connecting to shore to be “meshed ready,” which means being able to share sea-to-shore connection infrastructure among different offshore wind plants rather than each one having a separate connection to shore. PJM says it’s talking with other states about how to upgrade transmission to meet their energy goals. 

“We have had exploratory discussions with our states to pursue similar goals like NJ but nothing formalized yet,” Ken Seiler, vice president of planning, said last month, adding that the grid operator is at work on the second phase of a regional wind study “meant to identify regional transmission solutions to offshore wind and all other renewable portfolio development planned for by the states.” PJM’s counterpart in the middle of the country, MISO, which covers an area stretching from Minnesota to Louisiana, says its transmission planning has been all land-based and there are no offshore wind projects in its interconnection queue. 

“However, MISO is equipped to study and evaluate any offshore projects that may be submitted in the future,” Brandon Morris, a spokesman for the organization, said.

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