Industy considers structure, challenges of system
Laramie – According to Steve Burnage of RetCo, Inc, who spoke to the late-April meeting of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority, there are five issues fundamental to the role of the Wyoming Wind Collector and Transmission Task Force, and Wyoming’s collector system itself.
Organized by the Western Area Power Administration in June 2009, the task force brings together transmission line developers to create one coordinated system for collecting renewable electricity from sources around the state. The electric power can then be exported via intrastate transmission lines to various market centers in the western U.S.
Burnage said the first question is the role of the collector system, listing what he called a “powerful set of point in favor of a centrally organized collector system.” “It’s pretty clear that if we don’t centrally organize some form of system, and ask individual generators or companies to figure out a solution, the great risk is to miss an opportunity, and to give up a more efficient network structure that could be built by a centrally organized undertaking,” he explained, adding another benefit is the much greater potential for design redundancy.
“One of the original drivers of the collector system was the risk of unnecessarily duplicated lines and the inefficient use of rights of way,” continued Burnage. “A centrally organized architecture seeks to head off those outcomes.”
He listed additional benefits as additional scope for generators to reach additional markets that may not have been in their main focus. “The collector system can help with the business plan and economics of individual generation developers,” he said.
Burnage said the collector system will also diversify wind energy across the state. “It greatly reduces the risks, and it’s good engineering with good system design,” he added.
“By undertaking something like this we can go to California and say that Wyoming is supportive of wind energy, and can organize itself,” said Burnage. “It can also help individual residents and landowners, because if industry can get together to organize its collective efforts it will improve the relationship with the landowners.”
Second, Burnage discussed the design of the system, mentioning the commissioned report from ICF International that studied in significant detail what the network might look like.
“Today it has to be conceptual,” he said. “Nobody knows for sure which wind farms will progress, and which ones will succeed with contracts in utilities and where our exports will be. We can’t design a system today when there are so many variables, but we can’t sit on the sidelines and wait, either.”
He said the report greatly informed the debate about the collector system, but one number that wasn’t calculated was the cost of the alternative.
“The greatest economies and efficiencies come from increasing the voltage class,” he noted. “But the trickiest thing is the system is not in control of anything – it has to react to everything. We’ve got four world-class companies developing transmission lines, and the system has to react to who gets there first, and the timing, and that makes it challenging to study.”
Burnage said the third issue is the business structure of the system, noting ICF International has work ongoing regarding various business structures, which he says will probably look more like a gas system than anything in existing electricity structures.
“Without a rate base it’s a challenge, and this system has to join the queue with the generators and transmission companies for the same cash flow we all aspire to access,” he said. “That does make it quite a challenge that feels like a public/private partnership.”
Work plans are fourth on Burnage’s list of priorities. “Transmission projects are multidiscipline and can’t just focus on engineering, regulations or permitting, to the exclusion of everything else,” he noted. “All these things are dependent – some just come into focus a little later than others.”
He said the biggest project is the financing of transmission as a whole. “We have to start thinking through how we’ll structure the finance,” he continued.
“There’s a list of disciplines required to undertake a project as complex as large as this, and we’ve got good momentum going,” said Burnage.
He said the fifth issue was balancing the system with wind. “That’s the one issue that still remains to be resolved,” he said.
On the challenge of the collector system as a whole, Burnage said, “The purpose and nature is becoming clearer, in terms of design and real structural designs, and there’s a broadening consensus as far as what doesn’t work for business structure.”
Burnage said he’s modestly optimistic. “Despite it being an incredibly difficult challenge, some good work has been done,” he said.