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Outsmarting the Grid

A trio of eager tech startups confronts an industry intent on preserving the status quo.

Fortnightly Magazine - February 2010

power as three separate high-voltage 765-kV AC overhead lines. The entire “superstation” would muster a total initial transfer capability (ATC) of 5 gigawatts (5,000 MW), expandable to 30 GW.

In this way, power could be sent by conventional high-voltage AC wave transmission to Tres Amigas at Clovis, where it would be converted to DC pulse transmission, then directed around the triangular ring to the desired exit point (a different point of the triangle for each of the three grids), where the appropriate VSC units would convert the flow back to AC current, for injection into the destination grid.

In theory, wind power from turbines in the Texas panhandle in ERCOT could be sent via Tres Amigas to Palo Verde and Los Angeles, or perhaps through the Southwest Power Pool to MISO and then PJM, for delivery to Chicago. Little Clovis could well become the renewable energy capital of the nation.

New Mexico’s Governor Bill Richardson and Senator Jeff Bingaman each have praised the project’s potential. As posited by David Raskin (Steptoe & Johnson), lead FERC counsel for Tres Amigas, in the project’s filed rate application submitted to FERC last December: “This configuration and particular set of capabilities does not exist anywhere else in the U.S. electric system, or in the world.

“No one has ever built a facility like it.”

Equal Footing

This trio of projects will test the bounds of prevailing industry and regulatory constructs.

First, in the case of WGD, because battery storage would be designed to avoid future transmission expansion otherwise needed in PG&E’s retail service territory, WGD argues that regulators should classify its project as a transmission asset, even though WGD would operate its energy project much like a traditional pumped storage generating unit; WGD would buy off-peak power at a low cost to charge its batteries, and then discharge them at the high-cost peak, in a manner similar to a capacitor discharge, when power is needed for voltage and grid support.

WGD in fact has applied to FERC for a declaratory ruling to award WGD with special transmission rate incentives of the sort authorized by FERC Order 679, under Federal Power Act sec. 219 (section 1241 of the 2005 EPAct law) ( see FERC Docket EL10-19, filed Nov. 20, 2009 ).

This request seems like a reach, as FERC already has denied a similar idea. Two years ago, FERC ruled that California’s Lake Elsinore Advanced Pump Storage (LEAPS) project couldn’t qualify as a transmission asset to be controlled by CAISO as part of the grid, because LEAPS operation inevitably would involve CAISO in markets for ancillary services or even the energy commodity ( see the Nevada Hydro Co., Docket ER06-278, March 24, 2008. 122 FERC ¶61,272 ).

CAISO, in comments filed at FERC on the WGD project, agrees that the LEAPS ruling should disqualify a battery storage project from the status of a “transmission” facility.

Yet WGD argues that early stage development risks “are particularly severe.” As a startup company funded by its principals (“who have borne all development costs to date”), WGD argues that it won’t