Lack of transmission infrastructure in New England is throttling onshore wind development and tilting the playing field towards offshore, says an official at the region’s grid operator.
A big pipeline of onshore wind projects is under development across northern New England, particularly northern Maine, with Iberdrola, EDP Renewables (EDPR) and NextEra hoping to tap the growing demand for renewable power in population centres such as Boston.
In Maine alone, 3.6GW of onshore projects are in the interconnection queue, more than five times the state’s current installed capacity.
Some of these developments — like the 600MW King Pine that Pattern Development acquired from SunEdison this month — may soon secure an off-taker as part of the tri-state request for proposal.
But the bigger picture for onshore wind in the region is “kind of gloomy”, claims Theodore Paradise, assistant general counsel for operations and planning at ISO New England, which operates the power grid for the region's six states.
Little transmission infrastructure exists in the parts of Maine most attractive to wind developers, and the existing power lines connecting the state to southern New England are “largely exhausted”, Paradise told an industry conference.
Permitting and financing enough transmission capacity to accommodate significant new onshore wind capacity in the gas-reliant northeast is “not impossible, but I think it’s challenging”, he added.
However, Paradise sees “an emerging good news story for wind development” in the region: offshore. “We’re starting to see an emerging opportunity that doesn’t have the incredible barrier of onshore wind’s [transmission] cost.”
Look at Boston, where “there’s a lot of load and some good offshore wind. That starts to sound hopeful, because you’re no longer talking about hundreds of miles [of power lines] and billions of dollars of investment.”
Paradise’s view points to a growing tension between onshore and offshore developers in the northeast, where electricity prices are high, ageing generation capacity is coming off line and consumers are demanding more renewables.
By the end of July, Massachusetts’ legislature will unveil an energy bill expected to contain a large carve-out for offshore wind, with Dong Energy, Deepwater Wind and Blackstone-backed OffshoreMW among the top contenders to bring projects forward.
While the cost of offshore wind has been prohibitive in the past, the picture is changing thanks the economies of scale and know-how coming out of Europe, Paradise says.
“Europe is kind of like the friend you have who goes out and gets the iPhone 6 right when it comes out and pays full price for it,” he said. The US, by contrast, is the “cheap friend” who waits until the costs have come down before buying the new technology.
Many in New England’s onshore wind sector feel they are being unjustifiably overlooked in favour of offshore, which has a single project under construction in the US, and for large-scale hydro, which would be largely imported from Canada.
“I think there’s still a lot of opportunity in onshore — it’s a lot less expensive, even with the transmission,” said Stephen Conant, senior vice-president for project development at Anbaric, which aims to build a 1.2GW subsea power line to flow onshore wind and hydropower from Maine to southern New England.
Massachusetts’ push to buy offshore wind is “as much about economic development” as about buying competitive power, Conant says.
Anbaric’s decision to flow power beneath the Gulf of Maine is driven in part by the permitting challenges that would come with building onshore lines.
For some onshore wind developers facing transmission constraints, the solution may be teaming up with hydro generators, says Jeff Bishop, senior director for government policies at Canada’s Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners.
Brookfield has partnered Transmission Developers, EDPR and Iberdrola Renewables to develop a mega-transmission project running from Quebec to New York City, accommodating 600MW of wind farms to be built in upstate New York and hydropower from existing Canadian plants.
By “firming” the wind with hydropower, transmission costs can be cut by two thirds, Bishop says.
“You’re bringing in clean energy, firm capacity, and the independent system operator can dispatch it pretty much like natural gas or any resources. We think that’s a really, really good product.”