The U.S. wind power industry appears to be ready for a new period of growth after nearly becoming a victim of its own success. Early this century, thousands of new wind turbines were installed, but by 2008, the nation’s aging grid became overwhelmed. There were so many new wind projects under development with anticipated problems connecting to long-distance transmission that many projects were cancelled.
Most notably, T. Boone Pickens’ ambitious $10 billion project near Pampa, Texas, failed to get going.
In 2011, however, critical transmission upgrades are beginning to have a positive effect on wind generation. Southern California Edison’s high-voltage line connecting the Tehachapi Pass to Los Angeles has breathed life into what was the nation’s oldest area of wind turbines. Located 80 miles north of Los Angeles at elevations ranging from 4,000 to 8,000 feet, Tehachapi Pass is one of the largest wind parks in the world, with more than 5,000 wind turbines owned and operated by a variety of entities. The increased transmission capacity to Los Angeles has also spurred expansion of Alta Wind Energy Center in Kern County. With plans to produce up to 3,000 megawatts, it will be the largest wind farm in California.
The Green Power Express, a set of transmission line expansions being fielded by ITC Holdings Corp., is building a network of transmission upgrades across the Midwest. President Obama recently highlighted a key part of the new system, a high-voltage line connecting windy North Dakota with Chicago. Like the Tehachapi line to Los Angeles, the Green Power Express is expected to spur construction of hundreds of megawatts of new wind power from developers with pending projects in the Dakotas.
As important as the transmission upgrades in California and the Midwest are for the wind industry, the worst bottleneck is in Texas, which has long been the No. 1 producer in wind power. In 2008, the Texas Public Utility Commission responded by approving a package of transmission upgrades totaling $5 billion. The first new transmission route runs along Interstate 10, and another extends to the Texas Panhandle, which is considered to be the nation’s best wind region. Wind developers with shovel-ready projects pending near the new Panhandle high-voltage line include Nacel Energy, RES America and Cielo Wind Power.