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Achieving Sustainability Goals is Impossible without a Modernized U. S. Grid

“Implementing the NREL Seam Study concept would double the Penetration Level of Renewables on the U. S. Grid”

By Loyd G. Drain – August 29, 2022

Seems as though all the major companies in energy; manufacturing; transportation, retailers; and most any large entity you look at in the U.S. have Sustainability Goals. Taking a deeper dive relative to exactly how much renewable energy will be needed to achieve such goals, one quickly discovers that the corresponding demand for such energy will be virtually unlimited between now and 2050.

Making a cursory review of all of the major oil companies’ sustainability goals with their net-zero oil initiatives; their plans to construct wind and solar generation facilities; to purchase or develop large volumes of renewable energy; and to construct thousands of Direct Air Capture (DAC) units across the U.S. and the world, you will understand that many of those companies are keen on sustainability solutions to reach or approach their goals. Following such review, one likely could conclude that the amount of renewable generation required, just for the energy companies, can indeed be developed and constructed between now and 2050; however, in many cases, the ability of the existing Electric Grid to connect and deliver such generation to the market is impossible.

I would call your attention to an article published by Green Tech Media in August of 2020 which states that British Petroleum alone will need 50GWs of renewable energy by 2050 to reduce their fossil fuel output by 40%. That’s 50,000 MW of renewable generation needed by one company alone and even if they achieve that need, they still will fall short of achieving net-zero. The article may be viewed here.

Some recent studies and articles calling attention to the need for substantial build-out on the U.S. Grid include:

• A recent study by the Midwest Independent System Operator (MISO) grid operator says utility decarbonization goals could require 200 gigawatts of new capacity by 2041.

• With the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, FERC Changes could help State Decarbonization Efforts, as reported in a recent article by Clean Energy States Alliance, authored by Warren Leon.

The U.S. Grid is made up of three major interconnects, the Eastern Grid; the Western Grid; and the ERCOT System. While significant renewable energy generation projects have been built and interconnected to local and regional grids with a significant number of projects in the queue, there are obvious limits to just how much incremental power can be added to the existing grid.

Stitching together the major regions of the U.S. power system, represented here conceptually, could enhance the ability to harness abundant renewable resources and balance loads across the country. WI = Western Interconnection; EI = Eastern Interconnection; ERCOT = Electric Reliability Council of Texas. Per the legend, red dots indicate the top 25 population centers; blue dots indicate hydroelectric facilities; gray shading shows areas with major fossil resource; blue shading shows areas with greatest wind resource; yellow shading shows areas with greatest solar resource; and green shading shows areas with wind and solar resource. Source: NREL

Undoubtedly, there have been transmission systems improvements by ISOs across the Eastern and Western Interconnects; and ERCOT. In my opinion, with over ten percent of the U.S. power consumed within the state of Texas, ERCOT has done the best job overall in upgrading its system to provide markets for the ever-increasing amount of renewable generation compared to other portions of the U.S. Grid.

In 2018 a draft report was completed relative to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) Seam Study. The draft Study was showcased at the TransGrid-X 2030 Symposium held at Iowa State University in the summer of ’18; was posted on the NREL website; and was well attended. By August of the same year, the event was removed from the NREL website, and the Study was never officially released, thanks in-part or in whole to the Trump Administration. From time-to-time the Study is mentioned in power transmission articles; however, little to no progress has been made toward the eventuality of the concept.

A presentation at the Symposium by then NREL employee, Aaron Bloom (now with NextEra), was one of the most effective and engaging presentations I have ever witnessed. The video presentation is available online and well worth viewing.

An excerpt from the Symposium: The Interconnection Seam Study, led by NREL, examines whether the seam that separates the Eastern and Western Interconnections (EI, WI) should be replaced or redesigned using high voltage HVDC transmission bi-directional overlays with upgraded and improved transfer capabilities. The Study found that to reach a US level of 50% renewables by energy, increasing EI-WI transmission capacity by about 30GW results in achieving an economic benefit greater than 2.5 times the cost of the transmission. The Study projects up to 600 GW of new generation could be constructed made up of 390 GW of wind, 170 GW of solar and 40 GW of natural gas.

The overlays of HVDC lines across the Eastern and Western Interconnections would not only access high capacity factor wind throughout the Great Plains from Mexico to Canada but would also access solar-rich areas in the southern tier of the U.S. from the desert southwest all the way Florida. Without a modernized grid many of those resources cannot be tapped due to inadequacies of the U.S. Grid.

This map shows how a macrogrid (the red lines) could cross the seam separating the Eastern and Western interconnections, allowing the entire country to share electricity, including Midwest wind energy and Southwest solar energy. Map courtesy of the NREL Interconnections Seam Study.

For less than $90 billion in appropriations by Congress, the following could be achieved:

1) The Seam Study could be revised to reflect the current state of the U.S. Grid. Such revision could occur in twelve to eighteen months. Contained in such revision, would be a revised cost estimate for the transmission infrastructure; a geographic diversity study for wind and solar to attempt to quantify the monetary value of such diversity; a jobs and economic benefits study which would reflect the vast number of new construction and operation jobs together with the economic impact of being able to add up to 600+ GWs of new generation and energy storage in the form of battery storage; and the addition of lateral transmission lines to tap incremental hydro power available in Manitoba and Quebec, Canada. With the improvement in the efficiencies of energy storage over the last five years; the monetary benefits quantified in a U.S. wide geographic diversity study; and the addition of incremental hydro power, the need for any new natural gas-fired generation premised in the original study, would be greatly mitigated.

2) The 600+ GWs of new generation would represent an estimated investment of $800 billion, in my opinion, which would be built by private entities, primarily made up of load serving entities; energy companies; and private generation development companies. Also in my opinion, the economic benefits study will reflect that, with the corresponding reduction in electric power costs by consumers, if such savings, together with the monetary benefits of geographic diversity of wind and solar, will justify the $800 billion in the cost of new generation facilities without any additional taxpayer funds.

3) With a total economic event approaching $1 trillion with less than a tenth of that amount funded by taxpayers, the process in Washington to appropriate the requisite funding, given all the benefits, should garner support from both sides of the aisle in DC. It would not only support the Sustainability Initiatives of Corporate America but play a major role in providing a solution to such Initiatives.

4) Once the revised studies have been completed and the dollars appropriated, the Seam concept can be constructed and operating withing twelve to fifteen years after construction has commenced. The former regulations relative to the seventy-five percent on-site renewable loading requirement of BESS, in order to obtain the ITC credit, had an overwhelming chilling effect on both the deployment and the optimum operating capability of BESS. With the passage of the IRA of 2022, those shackles have been removed which will result in mitigating tremendous amounts of carbon-based power on the grid. We’re going to see rapid deployment of BESS facilities all over the U.S. near load centers and other strategic locations on the Grid.

In summary, the NREL Seam Concept or some type of major grid expansion providing for bi-directional flow of power across the Eastern and Western Interconnects is integral to corporations achieving their sustainability goals. Without such, those goals will never be achieved in many cases. The Seam concept, implemented, would represent close to a trillion-dollar economic event and it would result in doubling the current penetration level of renewables on the U.S. grid to a minimum of 50%. The time has come to make the Study a reality!

This publication is not meant to be technical, in nature, but a practical observation by someone actively engaged in the renewable power industry. For a technical evaluation and a better understanding of the east-west grid overlays, I would recommend the work contained in a NREL Journal Article dated October 2020. Such article may be viewed here.

For more information on the Macrogrid, an article published by T&D World referencing the work of Dale Osborne, former MISO engineer, in 2021 can be viewed here. In addition, an article titled Macrogrid study: Big value in connecting America’s eastern and western power grids featured the views of Dr. James McCalley on the Seam Study and the macrogrid. Dr. McCalley is an Iowa State Anson Marston Distinguished Professor in Engineering.

Loyd Drain, with an undergraduate Engineering Degree from Texas A&M and a Juris Doctor Degree from the University of Tulsa Law School, has over 40 years of commercial experience in the energy industry and currently is the member-owner of the Law Office of LG Drain, PLLC. In his current position, Loyd is heavily engaged in the renewable energy industry relative to solar, wind and BESS generation including the regulatory requirements of the Texas Public Utilities Commission, ERCOT, and the State of Texas. Loyd is an active member of the Texas Bar Association and is on the Advisory Board of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs. Loyd served as Co-Chairman of the TransGrid-X 2030 Steering Committee together with Larry Keith, Vice President and Managing Director, Solvent Energy, Inc.


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