Offshore Wind Won’t Overpower the Regional Power Grid

A reliable grid should be good news for New Jersey and other states, since it means they won't have to shell out for major upgrades.

If New Jersey and the rest of the Eastern Seaboard were to begin building offshore wind farms, it would not likely threaten the reliability of the regional power grid until more than 10,000 megawatts of electricity were being generated, according to an executive from the PJM Interconnection.

That was the assessment of Michael Kormos, senior vice president of PJM, speaking at a briefing on offshore wind held this week by the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee. The goal of the meeting was to examine how the state’s aggressive renewable energy goals affect the reliability of the power grid and what kind of upgrades to the transmission system might be required.

Kormos’s projection, if it holds true, is good news for consumers in the short term since they will not bear the cost of major upgrades to the region’s transmission system to accommodate offshore wind, which is both more costly than electricity from traditional energy sources and less reliable since the wind does not always blow.

Clean and Green

New Jersey and the rest of the Eastern Seaboard are competing to become the center of a yet-to-develop offshore wind industry, hoping it brings both cleaner power to the region as well as green jobs. The Garden State is looking to develop 1,100 megawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2020. One megawatt is enough to power about 800 homes.

The developers who have expressed the most interest in building wind farms off the Jersey coast have already lined up interconnections on land, so major upgrades of the transmission system likely will not be necessary until, and if, those projects are operational.

“There are many challenges to developing offshore wind, but transmission interconnection is not one of them,” said Robert Gibbs, vice president of Garden State Offshore Energy, which wants to build a wind farm 16 miles off the coast of Atlantic and Cape May Counties.

Erich Stephens, vice president of Offshore MW, agreed. “As you get into more than 1,000 megawatts, transmission becomes more of a challenge,” he said.

Atlantic Wind Farms

According to the U.S. Department of Interior, the greatest offshore wind energy potential in the U.S. lies off the Atlantic Coast, which could deliver 1,000 gigawatts , or one quarter of national demand. Wind potential off the coasts of all the lower 48 states exceeds the entire U.S. demand for electricity.

But in the PJM region, which stretches from the eastern seaboard to Illinois, onshore wind project applications dwarf those for offshore wind, which tends to be much more expensive. PJM has 3,000 megawatts of offshore wind projects in the queue, according to Kormos, compared with 40,000 megawatts of onshore wind.

“It’s going to be very unlikely we’re going to see any problems with offshore wind to create potential reliability problems,” he said, adding that the issue would not arise until about 10,000 megawatts are operational.

However, there is potentially a big fight brewing over whether clean energy from wind farms in the Midwest and Great Plains will be moving eastward or westward. In a battle likely to be played out over the next couple of years, the governors of 11 states along the Eastern Seaboard and 10 big utilities are opposing efforts to build a series of new transmission lines that would send wind-generated electricity east from the Dakotas and elsewhere.

They oppose the lines because it would spread the cost of building them among consumers here, adding a hundred dollars or more annually to electric bills, according to critics of the proposal.

The issue presents a tough dilemma for the Christie administration. Does it go ahead with more expensive power from the wind farms off the Jersey coast with the hope of attracting the manufacturing and green jobs associated with the sector? Or does it import cheaper wind power from the west, sending ratepayer dollars to wind farms there for renewable energy credits. The cost of onshore wind would still be less expensive than offshore.

There also are some who argue that the cost of offshore wind could be brought down if officials decide to back an ambitious underwater backbone transmission system, stretching from Virginia to New Jersey. Bob Mitchell, a principal in the company pushing the Atlantic Wind Connection project, said ratepayers would see savings if the initiative went ahead, despite its $5 billion price tag, since it would ease congestion on the power grid, which costs consumers billions of dollars each year.