Grid Modernization and Public Lands

Here at NRDC I work in an unusual program niche: the intersection of our renewable energy and lands and wildlife programs. During my career I have worked as an advocate for protecting wild places and creatures as well as a proponent of sustainable energy development. While there has seldom been conflict between these two goals, the overshadowing issue of global climate change has forced them together in unexpected ways.

If you care about wilderness, parks and wildlife (and most of us do) climate change is the accelerating train wreck we simply have to avoid. The ranges of species and indeed entire habitat types are shifting. Migratory behavior of animals is changing; causing chain-reaction impacts down to the smallest ecosystem cornerstone species we cannot fully predict or even understand. The need for what I call “classic conservation,” the protection of habitat and preventing encroachment on wild places has never been more important. But by itself it cannot stop the climate change juggernaut that is relentlessly rolling over the natural world. We can buy some room and time that we hope will enable species to adapt. But a third of the world’s species are forecast to be in danger of extinction by the end of this century absent a decisive global effort to change course in the way we use and produce energy.

We have the technology to change to a low and even zero carbon economy, and we have an urgent need to act quickly. To slow climate change we have to do many things well and we have to do them quickly. This is not usually a prescription for success, but it is our generations’ challenge and we cannot afford to fail.

Solutions abound but there is no such thing as an impact free energy source. Every action we take – even for renewable energy sources – has a cost. The task is not to avoid all impacts (not possible), but to intelligently avoid the ones we can as we apply the technology we need in a time frame that matters for keeping warming at levels we can adapt to.

What that means is a lot of land will be affected by renewable energy power plants like wind farms and solar arrays, and by the transmission lines we will need to build as we substitute green power for the dirty fossil fuels that has gotten us into this mess in the first place. We have vast renewable energy resources and we can be picky about where we decide to put them. But we need to make choices and many of them will be hard. The rise of distributed solar generation helps, but is not an answer in and of itself. By planning carefully and efficiently using the infrastructure we have better, we can greatly reduce the land and wildlife impacts created in delivering a renewable energy future.

Here are the elements of how changing how we plan and operate our electrical system can benefit wild lands, plants and animals:

  • Use less energy and use it more intelligently
  • Plan and build the generation and transmission we need and not what we don’t need
  • Put generation and transmission in the right places
  • Pay attention to the people who know where the right places are
  • Modernize and use the system as efficiently as it can possibly be used

This may sound simple but it isn’t because it means changing the way things have been done for a very long time. Transformational change like this creates lots of enemies who liked the old ways better and whose wealth and power depend on things not changing. But we have a moment now where the handwriting for the worst carbon polluter, coal, is on the proverbial wall and renewable energy’s costs continue to fall as their effectiveness rises.

Use less energy and use it more intelligently

Nothing is cleaner, cheaper, faster or safer than energy efficiency. My colleagues Ralph Cavanagh, Sierra Martinez, Sheryl Carter and others have written extensively on the subject and I direct your attention to their blogs  to tap a rich vein of insight from their expertise. But I will just say: everything starts with this. The simplest concept is sometimes the most important and not wasting a valuable resource brings other benefits as wide ranging as cleaner air, lower energy costs, fewer new power plants and transmission lines, and therefore less disturbance into the natural world. Understanding how much efficiency we will get, now and in the future, helps planners design, locate and build what we truly need. Moreover, experience has shown us that by exploiting demand side (customer) solutions fully before seeking to build new infrastructure, especially transmission, helps justify the case for transmission when it is really needed.

Build what we need, not what we don’t

Forgive me if this sounds simplistic, but it is common sense to prioritize investments worth billions of dollars, that will last for half a century, engender widespread public concern if not opposition, trigger complex permitting decisions and potentially impair the ability of wildlife and habitats to adapt to climate change. In addition to considering the “non-wires” efficiency solutions mentioned above, we need to understand how existing transmission assets are being used. Can these lines be upgraded? Is some of the dirtier generation going away and making room for renewable resources on transmission lines? Can utilities and grid operators share transmission resources? We have seen major benefits arise from decisions to upgrade and share transmission lines rather than spend tens of millions (or more) to mitigate the impacts of building new lines through environmentally sensitive areas. A great example of this was the decision of Portland General Electric to join forces with the Bonneville Power Administration on upgrading and sharing transmission in an existing corridor rather than building a new line, the “Cascade Crossing” transmission project, saving an estimated $70 million to $80 million in environmental mitigation costs alone. A range of impacts from forest fragmentation to encroaching on endangered species habitat were avoided by this choice.

But even after we use the existing system as efficiently as possible we will still need some new transmission to tap into the rich renewable energy resources we have access to in the U.S. to meet our climate goals. One way to do this is by prioritizing the construction of transmission lines that unlock renewable energy development areas (often called renewable energy “zones”), provide system benefits like relieving congestion and bolstering reliability, and, critically, serve both present and future needs. If adopt this approach, the transmission lines and their rights of ways we build today can serve us long into the future, avoiding habitat and wildlife conflicts. As our needs grow, we can meet them using many of the same corridors we already have, simply by expanding their capacity to move power.

The Mid-continent Independent System Operator has planned and is developing transmission to meet both system reliability and renewable energy policy goals by prioritizing the development of multi-value lines.

Some liken this kind of approach to Master Planning, in which an array of sometimes disparate considerations is taken into account when large scale development is proposed for an area.

For generation and transmission, a master planning approach would consider values beyond the purely electrical system needs traditionally used by utility regulators to justify the need for new transmission. These considerations, applied as selection criteria, can help prioritize transmission for present and future renewable energy zones. Examples include such things as:

1.       Concentrating renewable energy development in pre-screened zones on the least environmentally sensitive lands

2.       Economic development and job creation in financially distressed parts of a state or region

3.       Facilitating renewable energy development on contaminated or and marginally productive agricultural lands being retired from cropping, such as those in the west side of California’s Westlands Water District, saving water in the bargain.


Put it in the right places

Perhaps the most important approach to avoiding wildland and wildlife conflicts from renewable energy and transmission development is to use the best available geospatial (GIS) information to locate resource rich renewal energy zones and transmission corridors to serve them in less impactful locations. Criteria for renewable energy zones should prioritize areas that:

  • Have excellent resource values (good solar, wind or geothermal energy)
  • Facilitate multi-value transmission upgrades or justify new rights of ways
  • Avoid habitat and wildlife conflicts
  • Optimize grid and renewable resource performance (by reducing the problem of variability, the short term fluctuations in generation when the sun is blocked by clouds or winds calm down)

A number of transmission planning entities in both the western and eastern U.S. interconnections have developed planning methodologies to help identify areas suitable for renewable energy zoning and transmission. In the West, under the auspices of the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, Regional Transmission Expansion Project, an environmental risk methodology, complete with a data viewer has been created to help developers and planners identify transmission options to avoid the risk of encountering environmental and cultural resources. In California, the Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative pioneered using environmental considerations in renewable energy zoning, building on a model developed in Texas that lacked much environmental analysis, but which facilitated transmission development serving nearly 12 thousand megawatts of wind energy development, most in the nation. The Bureau of Land Management has designated solar energy zones across six states and is in the process of identifying wind energy renewable zones on federal public lands. The Eastern Interconnection Sates Planning Collaborative has also developed a zone identification tool that contains environmental data layers. Finally private initiatives like America’s Power Plan have published  papers on siting that contains most of the collected experience on the subject so far (full disclosure, I am a co-author, with Jonathan Hladik of the APP paper). Once zones are identified, transmission planners can use geospatial data to connect them to load centers with the fewest impacts possible.

Pay attention to the people who know where the right places are

Central to this “Smart form the Start” strategy is consulting key stakeholders before routing decisions are made and using their collective knowledge to find the best locations for generation and transmission siting. Environmental groups with deep knowledge of the landscape and potential conflicts, local governments, state and federal wildlife officials and others should be consulted early on and their input analyzed and adopted if at all possible. There is no shortcut to doing this work; starting early can make environmental impact reviews go more smoothly, resulting in better and less-contested land use choices.

Modernize and use the system as efficiently as it can possibly be used

This is the part of the relationship between the electricity system and land conservation many people have trouble understanding. It is not obvious.  But here is why it is so critical: simply stated, the better we operate the system, the more we coordinate it across large geographies, the more we fully utilize the existing transmission network, the more renewable energy we can add to the system with the least amount of new building.  The less new building we need, the less the impact on the natural world.  It is that simple. 

We are not playing the violin, we are conducting an orchestra

The generation sources we use for our energy and the grid that gets it to us is in a greater state of change than at any other time in its history since its inception.  We are experiencing a massive turnover of our generation fleet from coal, nuclear and gas to renewable energy and gas.  The way we operate and control our grid is changing too.  As we balance energy demand and generation on the grid we now need to factor in variations of both that far exceed the comparatively simple operational parameters grid operators have been used to.  We are no longer just sending power from generation plants to a distribution network and then on to our homes.  Power is coming from the homes too, and the times people need the power is changing even as the generation itself is becoming more variable. 

 Operating the grid with this additional complexity is much like conducting an orchestra, in which each generation source is like an instrument with its own characteristics and attributes – its own “voice” – which in combination with the others available to us, can be introduced at precisely the right time to make the composition synchronize perfectly. The challenge (not a problem but a management challenge) requires a major upgrade to the grid.  Not just adding new lines, though that will help and be needed in some cases, but changing the very way the system communicates and works.  New technology to inform operators about what the grid is doing at any given second; new systems to automate responses to this information; ways to make the scheduling and response time of energy dispatch faster; ways to store and release power when the system demands it; ways to coordinate the use of reserves and share resources over large areas (the wind, for example is always blowing somewhere); these are the tools “conductors” of the system will use to meet the needs of the grid of the future.

All these things combined give us a double benefit.  We use less land than we would otherwise need to and we get the renewable power faster than we might otherwise get it.  The impact on the natural world is reduced even as we accelerate the transition to clean energy we need to slow and hopefully halt the climate change juggernaut imperiling all life on this planet including our own.