By Thomas Ashley
Shutdowns and cutbacks of Vermont wind farms in January, July, and early October by the New England Independent System Operator (ISO) were hard to understand, harder to accept, and served to pull back the curtain (Wizard of Oz style) on who ultimately has the authority to decide what power can and can’t be generated and utilized in Vermont.
For proponents of renewable energy, the shutdowns and curtailments acted as a shot across the bow—angering many and leaving more wondering what the ISO was and why it would favor electricity generated from finite fossil resources.
ISO New England is a not for profit company that is responsible for ensuring the reliable availability of electric power to users in Vermont and the other five New England states. If more power is needed than is available, brownouts or blackouts occur. If more power is generated than is needed, the system becomes overloaded and costly damage to equipment can occur. Effectively, the ISO must instantaneously match supply and demand.
Integrating intermittent wind power into this matching process can be challenging, especially with the difficulty of accurately forecasting wind power generation. However, the reasons cited for the curtailment of wind farms on Georgia Mountain and Lowell Mountain were an excess of power in the New England electric grid (Georgia and Lowell); and inadequate electric transmission capacity (Lowell).
Curtailment in the former case means that the ISO is valuing Vermont’s wind power below that of fossil power sources. Curtailment in the latter case speaks to a need for Vermont to upgrade its transmission system. A 2013 survey of U.S. utilities by the consulting firm Black and Veatch found “improved grid system operator policies” to be the most important method for integrating renewable power behind only renewable power’s Holy Grail of energy storage.
Vermont can encourage (or mandate) its utilities to develop renewable energy storage capacity. By being able to store renewable energy and controllably release it into the grid as needed, Vermont can make its renewable power inherently predictable. Notably, California has recently taken this step (but allowed enough time until enactment for storage costs to come down).
Developing renewable energy storage capacity is expensive—so too can be increasing transmission capacity—but critical. Developing a smarter grid with regular demand-side management can seem invasive, and local microgrids are a new paradigm. Nonetheless, all of these methods will be necessary to meet Vermont’s renewable energy development goals and to move Vermont along the path to energy independence.
Making these investments and encouraging our Public Service Board, elected officials, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to keep the pressure on to classify wind generation as “must take” power should begin to bear fruit and help coax this wizard to become wonderful. Indeed, let’s turn up the wind—not give ISO New England excuses for shutting it down.