On February 28, 2010 at 1pm, wind power hit a record high in Texas – supplying more than one-fifth of the Lone Star State’s electricity demand. Throughout the year, an estimated 9% of the state’s electricity needs were met by the wind farms that have popped up since the first statewide Renewable Portfolio Standard was passed in 1999. Quite an accomplishment. But, as Texas continues to increase its use of the wind for its power needs, it is faced with the problem of how to move electricity around its state along its aging infrastructure.
How will the state get the West Texas wind to their East Texas cities?
The state’s answer – a $5 billion transmission build-out within the Texas electric grid to add more than 2,300 miles of new lines.
Texas is the only state in the continental U.S. with its own electricity grid. The Texas grid, overseen by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) oversees the movement of ~85% of the state’s electricity needs every year. This grid was built over the past century, at first connecting the state’s cities to nearby power plants. Later, the Rural Electrification Act connected the Texas Hill Country (and other rural areas) to the grid. Since this time, the grid has largely been allowed to age – leaving an increasingly vulnerable grid behind.
But, faced with stranded wind turbines and increasing electricity demand, Texas has decided to invest in its grid infrastructure. Under the state’s Competitive Renewable Energy Zones (CREZ) transmission line project, new high voltage transmission lines will be built to connect windy hillsides to bustling cities. And, to the dismay of landowners in the Texas hill country, some of these lines might run directly through their piece of the Texas countryside.
The Texas Hill Country is home to rolling hills, large ranches and families that have lived on the land for generations. Its cities include Johnson City (the boyhood home of President Johnson) and Fredericksburg (the heart of the Texas wine industry and art scene). And, after last Friday’s unanimous approval of a new CREZ transmission line, it will soon be home to new high-voltage transmission lines that will bring West Texas wind east along Interstate 10.
The Public Utility Commission of Texas has approved a new transmission line that will run along Interstate 10 from Junction to Kerrville. In Kerrville, the electricity that the lines carry will be transferred to existing transmission lines that run to the heart of the state’s eastern cities. This line will be constructed by the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), which is also responsible for managing the state’s water resources. It is expected to be energized by 2013.
In the United States, we generate most of our electricity in large power plants far from our homes and offices. The electrons that arrive at your house might have literally traveled hundreds of miles in order to turn on your lights and computer. This energy travels first over high voltage transmission lines – these are the big, thick silver towers strung with wires high up in the air – and then is stepped down to a distribution network of lower voltage lines like the ones you see running down your neighborhood’s streets (think wooden poles that sometimes are taken down by a falling tree).
Today, transmission lines in the United States run along more than 160,000 miles as a part of three main interconnections (East, West, and Texas) and distribution lines extend over (literally) millions of miles. The incredible accomplishment that was the creation this network of power lines was recognized in 2003 when the National Academy of Engineering named electrification – or more specifically the electric grid – as the top engineering achievement of the twentieth century.
Want a cool tool to see what the U.S. transmission grid looks like? Check out National Public Radio’s tool “Visualizing the U.S. Electric Grid” – available online. Included in this tool are proposed transmission lines (and interconnections), which show the current push toward tapping into the wind belt to get more renewable energy onto our grid (and into our population centers).
Make sure to note that, while this tool shows transmission lines, it does not map out distribution networks. These networks are the smaller wires that you see running up to your street or house.