Who Needs Transmission Wires Anyway? — Episode 175 of Local Energy Rules

Date: 19 Jan 2023 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

For this episode of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell is joined by Dan Juhl, Partner at E2SG Partners. Juhl and his partners develop clean energy projects — in particular, integrated systems that combine solar, wind, and/or battery storage. He discusses how commercial-scale, hybrid solar and wind systems are a “real match” that can circumvent transmission system concerns.

Listen to the full episode and explore more resources below — including a transcript and summary of the conversation.

Dan Juhl: With the hybrids, putting hybrids outside of a rural community, how easy it is if you just take a little bit of storage and some inverters and you drop them into that community and then have that utility offer their consumers an off peak rate that coincides with the production of the hybrid right outside of town. And so when they hit a peak in the system, they just take that home off-grid for a couple hours and then you use low cost off-peak power from the system alongside renewable technology. And you’ve got a very efficient, very clean, reliable system. And if the grid goes down completely, those people still have power to run the things that they need.
John Farrell: Permitting and transmission remain the biggest barriers to accelerating large scale renewable energy deployment. But what if there was a project model that threaded through both needles? Dan Juhl, partner at E2SG partners took time to speak with me in December, 2022 about the wind solar hybrid, a commercial scale renewable energy project combining wind, solar, and sometimes storage at a size that avoids major transmission and permitting hurdles associated with utility-scale wind and solar. It’s an approach that could bring affordable renewable energy and jobs to many rural communities, reinforce the grid, expand existing transmission capacity and advance clean energy goals. I’m John Farrell, director of the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and this is Local Energy Rules, a biweekly podcast sharing powerful stories about local renewable energy. Dan, thank you so much for joining me finally on Local Energy Rules.
Dan Juhl: Yeah, it’s great to see you John.
John Farrell: Well I read this article in the New York Times, lead author was Justin Gillis, and it was about transmission. And I thought of you as soon as I read this and about your solar wind hybrid projects because what they said was not that the big issue of expanding transmission to get a clean energy system isn’t important, but what they said is there’s overlooked opportunity to expand capacity on our transmission system on the lower voltage transmission system by basically just putting in new power lines on existing towers that we could add more line capacity and get a lot more clean energy on the system without having to go through the very laborious and long process of permitting brand new transmission lines and that we should definitely go full steam ahead there. So I just wanted to start with that Dan, and hear from you like how does this issue of transmission capacity play out in terms of this project concept that you’ve been nurturing the solar wind hybrid?
Dan Juhl: Well, I think it’s a paramount issue for the development of renewables as we move out in time. Historically, you know, John, I built a lot of community-based wind farms over the years and did my fair share of MISO applications and applications into the transmission system and I could basically see the writing on the wall that the transmission system was being overtaxed by trying to force big power into the grid where it’s really not designed to take it. So we either had to spend massive amounts of money to try to upgrade the system, which is part of the application forms and the MISO application into getting for grid access or we had to try to move closer to the load to get away from the transmission problems. And both of those are big problems because if you try to move closer to the load, you run into permitting issues and developing large projects, just try to cite hundreds of turbines in an area where there’s a lot of people, you’re always gonna run into one or two that people just don’t wanna see that and you can, you can understand that.

And so when I was looking at that and developing my project, I thought, well, there’s gotta be a different way. And you know, the community-based development that we did, we always connected into the lower voltage system, just was more of an economic decision than it was a technical decision. And so I looked at that and then when I built my shop in Woodstock, my first wind farm in 1998, I had to build a shop and the rural electric co-op wanted $25,000 to run the wire up to the building <laugh>. And that was a lot of money at that time for me. And so I thought, well, I can do something different. So I called up Elliot Bailey, I don’t know if you remember Elliot, he was a small wind turbine manufacturer in Duluth for many years called Whirlwind. And he’s an old friend of mine. He passed away unfortunately. And I talked to Stan Osinski who was one of the fathers of solar power to buy some solar panels and I put a small wind turbine up at the shop with some solar panels to provide power for me with, along with some batteries and an inverter. And it worked great and I could see over the time that when high pressure would move in, the wind would slow down, the sun would come out and we’d have all kinds of solar power and then as soon as the low pressure moved in, the wind would kick up and the wind turbines were doing their thing. And so it was a real match there and it was a load matching match to where the wind was always blowing when it was cold and windy and the sun was always shining when it was hot and sunny.

And so that kind of pushed me to think maybe we should look at this hybrid technology and pushing that idea of matching these two together and then tying ’em in at the lower voltage system to where we could blend the power into the grid and not try to force it in where it costs tons of money and causes all kinds of technical issues. And that was kind of the driving force. And so the transmission issue itself was one of the, the driving mindsets for us to look at how can we economically put in commercial scale power into the system and do it in a more efficient way and not really tax the transmission system but actually help it.

The other thing that we can do by doing these hybrids on the, what I call the mid grid level, which is basically below 115 kv, we can add a value to the system by adding ancillary services where you can do voltage support, frequency support and things that the rural power systems experience. Whereas the big cities, they really don’t experience that cuz they have all of the high voltage. That was the mindset on it. And so the transmission was always a big deal for us to try to alleviate that long-term problem and that was why we developed the hybrids in the first place was because of that issue.

John Farrell: I really appreciate you kind of giving some context too about the different voltage levels on the system. So in my house I’ve got either 120 or 240 volts on the transmission system. We talk about kilo volts, so you know, a thousand times up. Can you give some sense like the power lines that might, in my like distribution feeder that run down my alley, what are those at, how does that compare to this mid-grid level you’re talking about? And then what are those big steel towers I see along the highway? What voltage do those run at?
Dan Juhl: Okay, well, so if you look at your house, there’s, most people are single phased and so there’s two wires coming to your house and that voltage is usually right around 240 volts, right? That’s, that’s the voltage that we use 120 to 240v. And out on the pole there’s a transformer that kicks it from 120 up to 12,500 volts. And that’s kind of the distribution voltage for most rural electric co-ops and most municipal utilities. And within the communities it’s 12,500 volts. And then there’s another level called the 25 kv, which is a little bit more commercial and <laugh>. And then that jumps up to 69,000 volts in most cases. And that’s what we call the mid-grid and that’s where we tie in the hybrids and those are mainly just wood poles with three good size wires on ’em, they’re three phase power.

And then from 69 it jumps up to the 115,000 volts, which is usually the two poles span, where you have two poles and three big wires on that and that’s 115,000 volts and that jumps up to 345,000 volts, which is the big steel towers, the lattice towers that you see. And that carries the high voltage from the power plants out to us. And so if you think about that, all of those transitions from 345,000 volts down to 240 all requires a transformer and wires hundreds of miles of wires. And those are the losses we experience in the transmission system. And that is another reason why we did the distributed hybrids where we can produce commercial scale and deliver the power directly to where it’s being consumed and we eliminate all of those losses, all of the transformer losses, all of the wire losses, and a lot of the expense of having the upgrade the system for more load.

It’s a complicated system, but it’s pretty straightforward when you look at the actual patterns of how they step up the voltage and step up the voltage. And if you think about building a big wind farm, let’s say out in the middle of North Dakota or wherever, if the voltage transition on that, if you think about it, the power comes off these turbines at 600 volts that gets kicked up to about 34,000 volts and then that gets kicked up to 115,000 volts into the big double pole and then that gets kicked up to 345,000 volts, then it comes all the way across from the middle of North Dakota to Minnesota and then it goes back down again. So there’s transformation losses on the way up, transformation losses on the way down and all the wire losses in between are all eliminated by doing distributed hybrid technology again where we can deliver power directly towards being consumed.

John Farrell: So I wanted to ask you another question and so now that we have a better understanding of the infrastructure and the potential benefits of getting that locally placed energy kind of close to where we’re using it, let’s talk about who manages it. So there are different managers, right? You mentioned miso, the Midwest independent System Operator, which manages the transmission system. So is that, I think you made that distinction at 115,000 volts and above. Is that basically the break line between where this regional entity would govern it versus like the utility company that serves that area? How does that governance work in terms of if you have a project and you wanna connect to the grid, who do you have to talk to?
Dan Juhl: Well, technically under the, the FERC rules, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rules, the MISOs and the PGMs, the basically the RTOs, the regional transmission authorities, they are in charge of everything from 115 and above, basically the big transmission system. But in the rural areas, that gets knocked down to the 69 KV level also because those are what I call mid-grid. You know, the difference between the big grid and the distribution is that span of wire, 69,000 volt lines. Those are technically not under MISO’s jurisdiction, but the local utilities will basically grant them the operational authority through the state to manage those wires too, because they’re all technically part of the transmission system, even though under FERC rules, they’re really not part of the MISO mandate, but they’re given to the MISO through the state authority. And that’s because they need to regulate that also to control all of the demand and the flow of power. The MISO, his, their job is to manage the system as a whole and the mid-grid voltage gets slumped into their authority just because it’s an integral part of delivering power to the consumers. Below that, the distribution level is managed by the local distribution utility, if that made any sense. <laugh>
John Farrell: Yes, it made perfect sense. So you already kind of alluded to the solar wind hybrid projects, you build them at a smaller scale. So these, unlike that big wind farm example, you have hundreds of turbines in North Dakota, the power gets stepped up, up, up travels a long distance, step down, down, down. Not only do you have the losses from doing that, but it’s very expensive of course to build that infrastructure for those wind farms. So one of the things that is very much being discussed right now is how do we expand high voltage transmission to enable more solar and wind to be built all over the place, but also to tie different places together. So you mentioned like a high pressure system and a low pressure system, like the more interconnected we are, the more balancing that can happen from one region to another, like from Minnesota to Illinois to Louisiana for example. Not only does the Solar-Wind hybrid avoid those losses, it avoids some of those infrastructure costs, presumably then we could build it a little faster. I guess one of the questions I have is, you know that article that I referenced at the opening by Justin Gillis in the Times about sort of re-stringing the wires on the mid-grid is what I heard him saying. Tell me a little bit more about how that could help, and also too to what degree you can about how that might be less costly than trying to build these really big new transmission towers and, and infrastructure.
Dan Juhl: Well, I mean technically, by tying in distributed power in on the Mid-grid, you’re really not gonna need to do any upgrades or modifications to that because basically you’re reducing the flow that’s coming from the big transmission lines to the distribution system where we are the people are, you’re reducing the flow by putting the power in at that level, at the mid-grid level. And so you can eliminate having to upgrade those wires because you’re not adding more load, you’re actually reducing load because when you put generation onto the grid onto the system out, out at the end of the wire that looks to the regulators like the MISO when the sun comes up or the wind turns on, it looks to them like you’re shutting off loads. It’s not adding a load, it’s reducing the load. And so it can’t tell the difference if is a motor starting or did the wind pick up, they can’t tell the difference from that. It really helps the system in the form that it can reduce load onto the grid.

And we’re electrifying more and more and that’s what we need to think about with the electric cars. Everybody’s putting electric cars onto the system. If we’re gonna produce that power in far away places, we need to get the power to where it’s being consumed. And if you have a bunch of electric cars coming onto the end of the wire, a you will probably have to re-do some upgrades to get the power there. But if you put in commercial scale and the hybrids are commercial scale, I mean we use commercial scale turbines, we use the GE 2.8 megawatt machine with 127 meter rotor and then we use one to two megawatts of solar in a package. And so it’s, it’s real commercial power and so you’re putting that power in at the end of the wire and you’re basically helping support the system’s voltage, frequency and the load itself. And there’s a real advantage to this mentality of looking at how can we do this on a distribution level with commercial scale power.

John Farrell: So let’s pivot and talk a little bit. We’ve covered kind of the infrastructure question a lot and I think there’s a lot of clarity here that as these projects are built close to where we use electricity, they actually have a lot of benefits. Not only do they support the grid, as you mentioned, like voltage and frequency, helping with stability of the electricity system. They’re delivering power close to where we’re using it. They’re freeing up power on the bulk transmission system, on the high voltage stuff for more big wind and solar projects to be sent long distances. But who manages this now? So if you’re gonna develop this solar wind project, this big GE turbine, the one to two megawatts of solar, you’ve got a place that you want to build it, it’s got capacity on the grid, who do you have to go to to say, Hey, I want to build this project to get permission to connect it to the grid. And then how do you get paid? Like I think a lot of people that listen to this podcast know about net metering, right? So it’s, I put solar on my house or my business and it just rolls my meter back. You’re talking about commercial scale power. How do you get paid for this? Who are you negotiating with?
Dan Juhl: Well, you gotta remember the power that we all consume and use comes from somebody. And so we go to somebody and negotiate a power sale agreement to sell them power, whoever it is, whether it be an investor owned utility like Xcel Energy or Ottertail Power or Minnesota Power or a rural electric co-op, like Great River Energy, WinCo power based on electric. And so you go and negotiate power purchase contracts with them to deliver the power and they become the off-taker of the power. All of the upfront things that we have where, where we apply into the MISO for the app for the interconnection and we do all of the permitting and all of the front end work, the development work is done, and then the negotiation of the power contract is with the off taking utility in the area. In the case of some of the hybrids we’re working on now, we’re looking at both investor owned and public power as potential off-takers because they still have to produce power and deliver it to the consumers.

And so the project that we’ve developed right outside of where I live in Red Lake Falls, Minnesota, that power is sold to Ottertail Power company. And so we sell power to them right outside of town and at the speed of light, they take that power and turn around and sell it to the consumers in town. And it’s actually, from their standpoint, you’d think that instead of having to take it off some plant out in the wherever and ship it all the way through the wires and getting it to the spot to sell to the consumer could be very expensive. And it is very expensive. Where if we produce the power, we sell it to them at a price where they can make money and we are able to pay for the project. Everybody wins. And then you think of all the rural economic jobs that come with it, I mean the construction jobs and there’s some operations jobs and you know, there’s all kinds of things that trail along with these type of projects from the standpoint of economic development, that’s a big deal. And if you’re doing it for a rural electric co-op or a municipal utility, then you’re keeping those energy dollars in the community and not exporting ’em out to some big power plant out in the middle of North Dakota.

John Farrell: But of course, if I remember my history well here, despite the fact that there seemed to be all these upsides to this project, that Red Lake Falls project, you actually had to fight the utility to some degree in order to get that online.
Dan Juhl: Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, they’re monopolies, they’ve been spoiled for a long time, but you know, the times have changed. I mean we’ve, we’ve been basically at odds with the utilities for many years and that was mainly because of cost. They’d say, oh, well that stuff is just too expensive. Well now we can produce and deliver power with no fuel, no emissions, no waste, no water consumption and no transmission costs, right to the rural loads – to the consumers in town. And so that’s least cost energy. That’s, those are the things that make our energy costs go up. And so historically we’ve had to go in there and say, oh, well we wanna sell you power because it’s clean and it’s good for the environment and, and none of that. Well, it’s more expensive, they’d always say, because we really weren’t putting the real price of energy on the table, we were basically hiding the real price of energy through social costs.

Now times have changed and so we can produce and deliver power cheaper than coming off of a coal plant with all the emission regulations and all of the losses involved in that and the cost of mining the coal and shipping the coal and doing all of the other stuff, all of those costs are higher than ours. I mean, we put this technology out in the field right outside of town. We, we use no fuel, we have no emissions, there’s no pollution, there’s no transmission losses. And so we are economically ahead of the game. And so it’s not like it used to be where we had to fight with the utilities because it was an economic issue. Now we can partner with the utilities and help them provide clean energy to the rural consumers cheaply.

John Farrell: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, we discuss how wind-solar hybrids address the two major barriers to accelerating commercial renewable energy projects, transmission and permitting, and how regulators need to step in to protect the interests of communities. You are listening to a local Energy Rules podcast with Dan Juhl of E2SG partners about the modular wind solar hybrid projects that could proliferate across the existing electric grid.

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John Farrell: You mentioned monopoly already in terms of the utility having the authority exclusively over that particular part of the grid. And that’s true of course anywhere in the country that the distribution system and that mid-level grid is controlled by the utility. You’ve obviously been involved in some of the like policy discussions as well. One of the truths then, and we see this with a lot of different in a lot of different states and in a lot of different markets, is that utilities make their money when they expend their own capital, right? When they build a new power line, when they build a new power plant. Is there a way that we could change the incentive for the utility to make them more interested in buying power from these wind solar hybrids that might be independently developed or even owned by the community, ways that we could incent them to do that instead of continuing to look at it as an alternative to something that can make profit for them?
Dan Juhl: Well, I’m sure there is a way to do it. You know, people have to put their heads together to try to figure it out. I mean that ball has been rolling down the hill a long time and so it’s gonna be hard to change the course on it. But the reality is, and if I was a utility executive, I would take a step back and say, well you know what? We need to figure out how to do this because if we don’t, the consumers will, because the technology is evolving dramatically, especially with the third leg of the stool, which to me is storage. When you take storage and wind and solar together, it comes economically dangerously close to saying, you know what, maybe we should just cut the wire. I mean it’s close to that at this point. I mean there’s, the storage technology is leaps and bounds thanks to all of the work done with the car companies, the electric cars and the, the driving forces on storage technology. The batteries we can buy today are very efficient and and low cost compared to what they were just a few years ago. And solar power’s lower, every, all of this stuff is lower cost. And so if the utilities are concerned about their monopoly, they should be very concerned about the advent of distributed renewables with storage becoming a real problem.

And we’ve looked at with the hybrids, putting hybrids outside of a rural community, how easy it is if you just take a little bit of storage and some inverters and you drop them in into that community and then have that utility, in the case of a municipal utility, offer their consumers an off-peak rate that coincides with the production of the hybrid right outside of town where they could store power. And so when they hit a peak in the system, they just take that home off grid for a couple hours and then you use low cost, off peak power from the system alongside of renewable technology and you’ve got a very efficient, very clean, reliable system.

And if the grid goes down completely, those people still have power to run their lights and their computers and their furnace and the things that they need in the refrigerators and you know, their garage door openers, <laugh>, things that you kind of need. That’s what, if I was a utility executive, I’d be saying, look, I need to get my arms around this. We need to embrace this technology because it’s a game changing. The old way we’ve done it for years and years and years is under serious pressure with climate. And the power plants around here are tremendously old. If you look at the MISO, the average coal plant retirement is 40 years. That’s how old they are when they retire the coal plants they have been and just look at their records and the power plants we have in that are powering northwest Minnesota. And that’s, I’m using that because that’s where I live. Some of ’em are 50 high forties, early fifties years old and they’re worn out. One of the utilities here, they wanna put a 1.6 billion carbon capture on a 52 year old power plant. What’s the economics of that?

You know, they are realizing that and there’s some pretty good, you know, the folks at Xcel Energy I think have really started to get their, you know, they’re pretty sharp guys and they’ve done a pretty good job of how they’re managing it. A lot of ’em, when the coal plants retire, they’re, they’re looking at natural gas to kind of fill in the gap, which is sounds good, it’s cleaner, but by gosh that’s a finite resource and the economics of it are pretty scary on the long term. And so it all points to the three-legged stool, wind, solar, and storage. Actually it’s a four-legged stools. Wind storage, solar and demand side management, basically conservation technologies. You use conservation, storage, wind, and solar. That’s when the wire clipper gets out. <laugh>

John Farrell: Have you been doing any work with demand response, Dan?
Dan Juhl: Oh yeah, absolutely. Yeah, you, we talked about this before and I’ve developed a thing called solar bank. It’s basically a battery storage system and it basically makes your house, it’s an energy management system that uses solar and storage to manage energy within your, your home. And so you can buy off-peak power, buy cheap power at night and then use solar and that storage during the day. I have one in my house, I’ve had it for 10 years and it works great. That’s the world that’s coming, in my book, is the Solar Wind Storage and Demand Side Management by the consumers.
John Farrell: You’ve talked a lot now about how this, like the Solar-Wind hybrid at this scale, it’s commercial scale, so it’s cost effective, it fits into the grid in a unique way. I was reading a study earlier this year about electrification in Minnesota. So you mentioned like electric vehicles, they’re talking about finding ways to electrify home heating, which is obviously a really big energy use in the Midwest, especially the upper Midwest here in Minnesota in the winter. They said that if we tried to do like a hundred percent electric for home heating, and this has a little bit to do with the technology they were modeling, which was with air source heat pumps that would use electric resistance heat as a backup, which is obviously really inefficient, but they’d say we need as much as like 30 gigawatts of new power plant capacity, you know, it’s like 30 nuclear plants. To give people a sense of the scale there. To what degree can these wind solar hybrids scale up to meet that kind of demand? I mean obviously it’s not gonna be the only thing you build, but like can they scale, can we get gigawatts of new power capacity from stuff at this scale of like five megawatts a chunk?
Dan Juhl: Well, yeah, I mean it’s just duplication. I mean and the economics of the Solar-Wind hybrid, we designed that to be a cookie cutter, basically the same turbines, the same solar, the same fence, the same wire, the same transformer. It’s basically a cooker cookie cutter process. And so you can just drop them out in between towns from here to Texas. I mean it’s easily scalable and extremely manageable. You, you’re right, it’s gonna take a lot in with the electric cars. That’s gonna be a real challenge for us. You know, we all wanted to decarbonize our transportation system, but we’re not gonna do it with the existing system we have today. It’s gonna be very, very difficult. I was very excited to hear the breakthrough  in fusion <laugh> but they’re saying oh that’s 30 years out. So we got 30 years to figure this whole program out <laugh>

But again, you know, I think we can really make a lot of headway and one of the things that’s holding everybody back in our neck of the woods, rural Minnesota – and rural Minnesota is no different than most of rural America. These old antiquated draconian all requirements contracts that have been in place since the forties where the G&T, the generation transmission utility is forcing the rural electric co-ops and the small municipal utilities to buy this power even though it’s way more expensive than the stuff that’s coming out of the box today. You know, with the renewables. We see it firsthand with some of these utilities, these G&Ts where they won’t, you know, we have a one municipal utility that really wants to do a hybrid. They wanna do it because they can see it’s cheaper. I mean we’ve run all the economics with them and we thought if they put a hybrid on their municipal utility, they’d save close to 400 grand a year, 300 to $400,000 a year off their existing power price today per kilowatt hour.

Can’t do it because they have this all requirements contract and the G&T basically sued them to say you can’t do this. They filed an injunction. It’s really terrible I thought. But I think it’s all gonna have to change pretty soon. But that’s one thing I think we could really look at regulatorily is the all requirements contracts that had their day. When they first built the power plants for the co-ops, they needed a dedicated customer to pay for the power plant and all that good stuff and that’s all fine, but in the interim now we have MISO, which is a market for electric power. So the power off that power plant can be sold into the market just as easy as forcing me to as a consumer to buy it at a much higher price than if I can buy it off the market. And so it’s kind of a old school approach and then they built those power plants 50 years ago and they still haven’t debt serviced those plants. What kind of business guys are they? <laugh>, I mean, you know, if you had a business and you’re capitalizing your equipment and your business and you can’t pay for it in 50 years, maybe you’re in the wrong business. I mean it’s, but it’s just the way it is. But that’s something we need to really look at.

John Farrell: Yeah, that’s, it is a really disturbing element of this is that the policies and the contracts that you have between these local utilities and these bigger utilities can really hamstring communities. I’ve heard of several and probably ones that you’ve worked with where, like you said, that they could get less expensive electricity today if they could build these projects, but they have some kind of archaic contract with a supplier and for power plants that you kind of, you kind of alluded to this earlier, right? These are power plants near their retirement age anyway, they’re inefficient and maybe that’s the issue, right? Maybe they can’t go into MISO and into the market and sell that electricity cuz it’s too expensive. But maybe they should just be shutting them down if that’s the case.
Dan Juhl: So why make us buy it <laugh>, right? <laugh>
John Farrell: So one of the questions I specifically had here, which we didn’t quite get to was when I was thinking about this idea of scaling up, you know you mentioned these are cookie cutter systems, you could just, you know, grab a GE turbine, grab one to two megawatts of solar and you can plop that down pretty much anywhere. It doesn’t take up a lot of space. But one of the things I was curious about, and this actually gets back to, I think you were probably involved in this with George Crocker and John Bailey and some others back in the day, we asked the state of Minnesota to study if you wanted to build lots of projects like these, is there room already on that mid-grid level to put these projects in? Do you have kind of a current assessment of like, yeah we could build thousands of these across Minnesota, across the Midwest with the existing capacity of the system? Or do you get the sense that there would be upgrades that would be needed in order to support these things being built similarly to like the large scale stuff that people talk about building transmission lines for?
Dan Juhl: You need to upgrade the system if you’re adding load, but if you’re blending in generation that doesn’t overpower the system, you can blend it in very reasonably. I suppose you could figure it out and do the math, but how many communities are there in Minnesota, rural communities, each one of ’em has a five megawatt or so substation that takes the power off the grid and distributes it to them? Well if you plug these things in right outside of town right by that substation, that power cycle power flows to the load. And so it’s gonna go right to the consumers first and the communities first. And so the system itself should be just fine and managing the system. The MISO, when they look at managing the system, they look at the next level where the 115 goes down into the 69 level, that’s where they look at it and they see where the, that’s how they manage a lot of the power system management.

And so if you’re producing power out here on the end of the wire and you might be pushing some back into the transmission system, but you’re basically, that reduces having to have that power sent from way out in the middle of nowhere to that point anyway. And so I know there’s a couple engineering groups that are really looking at how can we blend power in more efficiently without having to do all of this transmission upgrade cuz they’re talking billions and billions of dollars of transmission upgrades to try to bring renewables into the system. And that’s because you can’t build big renewables by people. <laugh>, we know that, you know, it just takes one guy with a lawyer to go crazy on you. And that’s just fact of life. If you’re doing these community-based projects where the communities are, it is something for the community and you don’t have the same opposition and you’re putting in one turbine with a small field.

And you know, the project outside of Red Lake falls here, that project takes about seven acres of land and it does 20 million kilowatt hours a year of power. So on seven acres, if you’re gonna do that same thing with just solar, it take hundreds of acres of land. I mean it take a lot of land. And so it’s a very land conscious way to produce commercial scale power. And again, it’s delivered right to where it’s being consumed and that’s a big value.

John Farrell: I love that vision of looking at it from the perspective of the substation, that you look at this and you say, okay, you’ve got all these rural substations, they were all designed essentially with the idea that the only input in terms of electricity was gonna come from the higher voltage system from far away. And you’re saying, hey, instead of waiting for it to get here from far away or even like thinking about upgrades that might be needed to do that, you can produce it locally. What I’m really curious about is there are some groups out there like Vibrant Clean Energy and others that are doing a lot of modeling of how do we get to a carbon-free electricity system, how do we get to a very high renewable electricity system? And the transmission constraints continue to be one of the big limiting factors, right? And I just keep wondering to myself like, oh, if you took all of these communities essentially out of that equation because they have that local production, how many millions of megawatts or gigawatts of renewable electricity could you put onto those big wires and to send long distances because you have so much less need to be sending it out to all these individual communities?
Dan Juhl: Yeah, it’d be an interesting look at it for somebody. The physics of it are all there. I mean, electric power’s kinda like a water pipeline, you know, if you’ve got a big pipe, it goes to little pipes and little pipes and goes down and if you put a pump on the end of the little pipe, it slows down the flow on the big pipe. And so I mean it works the same way. That is how we can get to, and we all have, we all have these carbon neutral goals we want to get at, but if you take a step back and realize that there’s two big obstacles, transmission and permitting, if you ever try to develop a project of the wind project or this large solar project, you know that those are two major, major hurdles to get access to the grid where you’re not gonna choke it and getting everybody in the 10 mile radius to, to go along with it. It’s, it’s very, very difficult.

And then as the transmission system becomes more of an issue, they try to move closer to the load, which means you’re moving closer to people, then the permitting issue becomes another stalemate. And so we want to get to the carbon neutral program. We need to be creative in how we do this and deploy the renewable technologies that we do have. And even the big wind turbines, they’re one at a time. A big a hundred megawatt wind farm is just a whole bunch of wind turbines, <laugh>, you know, it’s not one big power plant. And so if you take those same turbines and you spread ’em out and blend them into the system, then you alleviate a lot of the problems.

John Farrell: I would love to ask you about permitting really quick, cuz that is another thing that comes up. Of course, as you said, the two big obstacles to renewable energy at big scale are transmission and permitting, but there’s been conservative money thrown in to get communities to resist wind and solar projects often on spurious claims of health impacts and other things. But there is always this legitimate concern of a community of, you know, you’re building something new nearby. How, what kind of impact is it gonna have on me? Do you find with the wind solar hybrids that permitting is a fairly maybe to, for lack of a term, emotional thing for the community? Or given that it’s not that big, is it fairly straightforward?
Dan Juhl: It’s very straightforward. I’ve built probably 40 community type projects over the years. I’ve never once had a permitting issue where people said, oh, we can’t, we don’t want that. I mean, if you’re building something around the community and you’re, you know, we try to use as much local content as we can, jobs and the materials and stuff like that. But if you’re creating some sort of economic activity in the community, the big projects, when I built my first wind farm down in Woodstock, down in Pipestone, Buffalo Ridge, mine was the first one out there and it was all fine, but all of a sudden all of these big companies come in and they just kind of push their weight around and they say, well, if you don’t do it, your neighbors knock. You know, and they, they pit neighbors against each other. That just creates conflict within the community.

If you’re not trying to site a whole bunch of turbines, it’s really not a permitting problem because you’re not causing a huge visual impact. I learned a lot of this when I worked for the Danes back in the eighties when we were first wind power was first becoming commercialized, we would go over to Denmark and northern Germany and the people loved it. And because you’re putting one here, one there over here, over here, and some of ’em are owned by Yens and some are owned by Hans and you know, and they’re just owned by different people that lived in the areas. And it triggered to me that it’s makes a lot more sense to try to do something like that than these big, big projects where the big multinationals come in. That was my whole mentality for the last 40 years is trying to build stuff like that.

John Farrell: Man, there’s so many good things, but I think we’ve covered it all. I mean just the whole, the whole scope and the whole range of ways in which this solves problems that confront us when we are talking about expanding access to clean energy. I mean that you’ve got the scale issue that helps to avoid the transmission and the permitting problems. You’ve got the energy savings that come from doing it at a commercial scale, but near to where we use electricity, as you said, it’s that three-legged stool all in one project. You know, you can do solar, wind, and storage, so you can use it to both support the local grid in terms of stability, technical stability, you can support local utilities and getting lower cost power. Well, I just want more people to hear about it. So I’m delighted that you took the time to talk with me today, Dan. So grateful you could be on the podcast.
Dan Juhl: No problem, John. Thanks.
John Farrell: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Local Energy Rules with Dan Juhl of E2SG partners, where we spoke about the opportunities in the Wind solar hybrid model of renewable energy development. On the show page, look for links to more stories about the wind solar hybrid as well as the regulatory proceeding that was necessary to get the recent Red Lake Falls project past utility obstacles, as well as some articles about PURPA, the federal law that governs the rules and pricing for such projects to get grid connected. Also, check out episode 33 of local Energy Rules where Ed Marston and I talk about a federal court ruling that laid the groundwork for projects like Dan’s Solar-Wind Hybrids. Local Energy Rules is produced by myself and Maria McCoy with editing provided by audio engineer Drew Birschbach. Tune back into Local Energy Rules every two weeks to hear more powerful stories of communities taking on concentrated power to transform the energy system. Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.


The Electricity Transportation System is Failing

High-voltage transmission lines are overburdened, lack regulatory oversight, and as a result, are poorly planned. Accordingly, rural energy projects often come up against costly transmission upgrades to get their electricity to consumers. The alternative of building wind and solar farms closer to consumption, Dan Juhl explains, often comes up against resistance from the community.

Developers can work around the transmission system, but high-voltage lines are not the only problem. New York Times op-ed contributors Justin Gillis and Tyler H. Norris recently raised the issue of more local, 115,000 to 230,000 volt power lines — identifying them as “What Is Really Strangling the Energy Transition.” But what about even more localized power lines?

However, in his two decades of developing commercial-scale renewable power, Juhl has found that community-scale renewable energy systems actually relieve some of the stress of energy transmission.

How can we economically put commercial scale power into the system and do it in a more efficient way and not really tax the transmission system, but actually help it.

The Case for Generating Power Where It Is Consumed

Juhl explains how building smaller-scale, distributed energy generation systems that blend into the community is a win-win. When the project is close to the electricity consumers, it does not require an updated transmission line. Avoiding transmission also makes better use of the electricity, as transforming and carrying electricity incurs losses.

Projects located within the distribution network act more as a reduction of electricity load than as a generator, says Juhl. They free up space on existing transmission lines, as the community no longer needs to import the electricity they generate. Juhl stresses the importance of combating load as consumers electrify their cars and buildings. When it comes to solar’s often-raised intermittency issue, Juhl believes that pairing wind and solar together is especially effective.

Working With, Against, and Around Utilities

Beyond technical and permitting restraints, most solar developers blame interconnection hurdles on the entity controlling the wires.

For-profit electric utilities, in particular, are trying to sell the electricity that they generate. They earn a guaranteed rate of return when they build power plants, so they do not want to buy electricity from self-generators — even if that electricity is cheaper for their customers. This conflict of interest carries the most weight in regulated markets, where one utility controls electric generation and the distribution.

Developing renewable energy in rural electric cooperative territory has its own challenges, explains Juhl. Because of “all-requirements” contracts, distribution cooperatives must buy nearly all of their electricity from one wholesale provider.

Still, Juhl says utilities would be better off to embrace distributed generation. When utilities are refusing to interconnect customer-owned generation systems, customers will be pushed to pair their generation with storage. And on the combination of energy conservation, wind generation, solar generation, and battery storage? “That’s when the wire clipper comes out,” says Juhl.

Juhl believes that his “solar bank,” a battery storage and energy management system, can scale up and provide energy consumers with more options.

If the utilities are concerned about their monopoly, they should be very concerned about the advent of distributed renewables with storage becoming a real problem.

Episode Notes

See these resources for more behind the story:

For concrete examples of how towns and cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.

This is the 175th episode of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.

Local Energy Rules is Produced by ILSR’s John Farrell and Maria McCoy. Audio engineering by Drew Birschbach.

This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update.

Featured Photo Credit: Gerry Machen via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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Maria McCoy

Maria McCoy is a Researcher with the Energy Democracy Initiative. In this role, she contributes to blog posts, podcasts, video content, and interactive features.