A contested 780-mile Midwestern transmission line for wind, the Grain Belt Express Clean Line, may have another chance at life. A Missouri judge ruled recently that the state’s utility commission “erred” in denying the project, putting a final decision in the hands of the state Supreme Court.

It’s an important victory for wind developers and transmission advocates who say the blooming industry in America's “wind belt” can’t reach its full potential if transmission infrastructure doesn’t rise up to meet it.

“This is an argument as old as wind itself,” said Anthony Logan, a North American wind market analyst at MAKE Consulting. “When you have such a fragmented grid, how do you get everyone on the same page to make wind, which thrives as a multi-state coordinated resource? How do you make that happen?”

The $2.3 billion Grain Belt Express line would stretch from western Kansas to Indiana, crossing Missouri and Illinois on the way. Grain Belt won approvals in all those states except Missouri, where the PSC ruled that the project would need approval from all counties in its path. 

Logan said slow regulatory processes mean the transmission development pipeline can take years, even without legal issues. Without transmission to bring the cheaper power to centers of higher demand in the east and west, there's no wind industry. 

“Transmission is essential for wind development," said Peter Fox-Penner, director at Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy. "Historically, the lags in transmission building have delayed wind development and led to curtailments."

Grain Belt is one of many such proposed projects now winding their way through approval processes. The 730-mile, 3-gigawatt capacity TransWest Express Transmission Project would bring power from Wyoming to California, Nevada and Arizona. It’s been under development since 2005. In the works since 2011, the Zephyr Power Transmission Project would also connect Wyoming to the Southwest. The 518-mile SunZia transmission line would ferry solar and wind-generated power from Arizona and New Mexico to the West. The concept for that line emerged in 2006. 

Many of those projects should come online in the next few years, offering what Fox-Penner called “concrete developments,” if only regionally. According to Rob Gramlich, founder and president at Grid Strategies LLC, a significant build-out of infrastructure between 2009 and 2015 eased congestion somewhat, but now planned expansion is lagging. With more generation joining the grid, demand for added capacity remains high. 

When Clean Line Energy Partners announced the Grain Belt Express, wind generators representing over 4.5 times the line’s capacity requested transmission service. According to data from MAKE, Kansas currently has 5.1 gigawatts of wind, Missouri has 1 gigawatt and Illinois has 4.3 gigawatts. Between 2018 and 2027, those three states are projected to add 6.1 gigawatts of capacity, the bulk of which will come before 2020. The Department of Energy forecasts 404.24 gigawatts of wind capacity (both onshore and offshore) by 2050. 

“Broadly speaking, there will be insufficient transmission capacity to fully utilize forecasted wind capacity additions over at least the next three years without curtailment, less-than-ideal hedging arrangements or other problems,” said Logan. “We are tracking thousands of miles of transmission developments that would transmit several thousand megawatts of additional wind-sourced electricity, but many of these projects are in limbo or stasis, or have otherwise been delayed for years.”

Developers are still moving forward on wind projects, but with narrower and narrower margins due to congestion. According to a March white paper from the Working for Advanced Transmission Technologies Coalition, customers pay an additional $6 billion a year because of transmission congestion. WATT argues for the country to fix its transmission issues, we'll need to change demand, build new infrastructure, and utilize advanced transmission technologies. 

The Trump administration’s infrastructure plan did offer some money for rural transmission development, gaining plaudits from the American Wind Energy Association. But Logan said wind developers had hoped to see more support. Without it, developers are taking steps of their own to avoid risks surrounding transmission uncertainty. AEP’s design for the 2-gigawatt Wind Catcher project includes 360 miles of dedicated 765-kilovolt transmission line rather than relying on regional planning through the independent system operators and regional transmission organizations. 

“You might call that the nuclear option in dealing with this and getting around the constraints that are caused by inadequate transmission development,” said Logan. 

Ameren Corporation, a utility serving areas of Missouri and Illinois, said it looks forward to a decision on Grain Belt that clarifies transmission filing processes in Missouri. The utility said it is working with the Midcontinent Independent System Operator on multi-state efforts as well as state-specific projects to match increased customer demand for renewable sources with access.

In its white paper, the WATT coalition also proposed several advanced technologies they argue will help bridge the gap to more infrastructure build-out. WATT claimed that deployment of those technologies could save consumers up to $2 billion a year. 

Dynamic line ratings that monitor line conditions could reduce curtailments and congestion, and can provide forecasted ratings. Advanced power flow control can draw power on or off different lines depending on congestion. Topology optimization redistributes power flow over the grid, which the Coalition said can reduce congestion by up to 50 percent.

And according to Logan, smaller-scale projects that can help ease the burden shouldered by existing transmission shouldn’t be overlooked either.

“It doesn’t have to be mega-projects; it doesn’t have to be Grain Belt or any of the Clean Line projects,” said Logan. “Just general upgrades and general expansions of capacity that can generally handle the wind coming in.”