There's a lot of enthusiasm for wind energy these days, and rightly so. It's an enormous untapped energy source and wind energy is basically pollution-free, once the turbines are built and installed. There are a couple of problems, though that need to be addressed.
The New York Times published an excellent article a few days ago describing how the limitations of our existing power grid are going to limit the amount of wind energy we are able to use.
Maple Ridge Wind Farm, pictured above, was completed a few years ago at a cost of some $320 million. Located in upstate New York, the facility consisting of almost 200 wind turbines can generate more than 300 megawatts of power at peak output. Yet at times the owners have had to shut the facility down, even when the wind is blowing, because the transmission lines were inadequate to handle the power.
The greatest resources for wind power in the United States are located in the great plains, far from the populated areas that consume most electricity. Our current electricity grid is completely inadequate to move even a relatively small amount of electricity from the plains to the east coast, much less the large amounts that are potentially available. And every new transmission line that would add capacity faces tremendous local opposition and interminable hearings from every jurisdiction it crosses.
Here in Maryland, we need to import about twenty percent of our electricity from other states because our generating capacity is far short of our demand. But the transmission lines that bring electricity to Maryland from out of state are running at capacity. The extra price we pay for the congestion on these lines increases the cost of electricity for everyone in the state. Our regional grid manager - PJM, has predicted that the DC/Baltimore area and the Eastern Shore face the possibility of rolling blackouts during periods of high demand as soon as 2011 unless new generating capacity comes on line or new transmission lines are completed.
Three new transmission lines are being planned to bring additional power to Maryland. The Mid-Atlantic Power Pathway (MAPP) proposed by PEPCO would run from the Western Shore past the nuclear plant at Calvert Cliffs, under the Chesapeake Bay to Vienna and then north through Delaware to New Jersey. The Trans-Allegheny (TRAIL) line proposed by Allegheny Power would bring electricity from the west across Pennsylvania and West Virginia to near Frederick Maryland. Dominion Virginia Power is proposing a transmission line which would bring power from Ohio and West Virginia to the fast growing areas of Northern Virginia and the Washington, DC area. All of these face significant local opposition and are unlikely to be completed in the next several years.
In Maryland, of course, the Maryland Energy Administration says the solution is energy conservation and, at their urging, the legislature passed the EMPOWER Maryland Act which requires electricity providers to reduce per capita consumption by fifteen percent by 2015. But that's too late to have a significant impact upon the projected shortfall three years from now. Besides, I haven't seen any action yet except for some subsidized CFL bulbs and some efforts to reduce peak demand by some of the smaller providers like SMECO.
No one wants a big transmission line near them. But if we're serious about exploiting wind energy - and solar energy and other renewable resources, we need to have a modern, reliable electricity grid which will bring the electricity from where it is generated to where it is needed. In Maryland, the state needs to stop wavering and provide strong political support to the construction of these lines for the benefit of all its citizens, otherwise we could be in for some hot summers and cold winters - both outdoors and indoors.