Renewable energy stymied by roadblocks
MOBERLY, Mo. – Mike McKeown opens the back door of his Missouri farm house and is met with a chilly gust. “Stupid wind,” he mutters.
Today, the winds that blow through his corn and soybean farm have become more than just an irritant. The homestead in northern Missouri, which his family has owned for nearly 70 years, sits smack in the path of a proposed high-voltage line that would carry renewable energy from the wind-whipped plains of western Kansas to power-thirsty cities farther east. And McKeown doesn’t like that.
Due partly to the intense opposition from local property owners, Missouri regulators have blocked the 780-mile-long Grain Belt Express power line from being built. In doing so, they have highlighted one of the toughest challenges facing the nation as it tries to shift toward a greater reliance on renewable energy.
Converting the wind and sun into electricity is increasingly affordable, but it can be difficult to get that electricity from distant plains and deserts to the places where it’s needed. The reasons range from technical to regulatory.
“Transmission is the biggest long-term barrier for wind energy development,” said Rob Gramlich, senior vice president of government and public affairs for the American Wind Energy Association. “That’s because the best wind resources are often in remote areas on farms and ranches that are far from population centers.”
To get the power from one point to another means crossing not only through hundreds of farm fields and backyards but also through multiple states with different regulatory requirements. Public lands that are subject to numerous environmental restrictions offer yet another obstacle.
Further complicating the transmission puzzle: The nation’s electric grid was designed primarily to serve particular states and regions, not necessarily to move electricity from one part of the U.S. to an entirely different area.
There also are technical challenges. To ensure a steady supply of electricity, there often must be some way to store excess energy generated from strong winds and prolonged sunshine and to supplement the downtimes with other sources such as gas-fired generators.
While wind power is the fastest-growing source of new energy in the U.S., it still accounted for just 4.4 percent of the nation’s electricity in 2014, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Solar power contributed just 0.4 percent.
President Barack Obama’s administration has encouraged the development of more wind and solar energy while imposing stricter limits on pollution from coal-fired power plants, part of his strategy to reduce the amount of heat-trapping carbon in the atmosphere. An international climate agreement announced earlier this month calls for nearly 200 countries to collectively slash carbon emissions in the decades ahead to slow the pace of global warming.
States also have been pressing utilities to generate power from cleaner sources. California is among 29 states that have adopted renewable energy requirements. In the nation’s most populous state, with the world’s eighth-largest economy, utilities must get half their energy from renewable sources by 2030. Vermont has set a 75 percent renewable energy standard by 2032.
Yet government regulations also have impeded the development of large-scale renewable energy projects.
Clean Line Energy Partners, the Houston-based firm behind the Grain Belt Express, had a route rejected in Arkansas. Twice, Iowa denied its requests to decide upfront – before it begins acquiring easements – whether a proposed line leading to the outskirts of Chicago is in the public interest.
Other transmission lines for renewable energy also have experienced delays and denials:
n Arizona utility regulators rejected a request by Southern California Edison in 2007 to build a 270-mile line carrying power from a site west of Phoenix to Palm Springs, California. Utility company officials said it could have prompted development of new solar power in the desert, but Arizona regulators cited concerns that California’s increased power draw could have led to higher rates for Arizonans.