New Standards to Guide Next-Gen U.S. Wind Power

In a clear sign that wind power facilities are being considered an increasingly relevant and important part of the U.S. electrical grid, the nation’s top regulatory agency released details of their new proposed interconnection guidelines. Once official, they will have a far-ranging impact on the U.S. wind power industry including manufacturers, developers, and grid-operators alike.

Power generation projects larger than 20 MW have to follow federal connection standards in order to access the national power grid. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) amended the most recent connection standards for the power industry in 2003. Those standards didn’t take into account some specific technicalities of connecting wind power facilities, however. Due to those technicalities, wind power was exempted from those 2003 connection standards while FERC determined what special guidelines should apply to a wind facility. With some pushes from within the Commission, along with an outside effort from American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) and its members, FERC has now released proposed standards designed to specifically address wind power. AWEA — which speaks for the U.S. wind power industry — secured one of their two main requests. Low Voltage Ride-Through Historically, in the event of a blackout or other problem on the electrical grid, grid-operators have preferred for wind power facilities to simply disconnect from the grid thus allowing those operators to address the issue independent of the wind facility. Essentially saying ‘stay out of our hair’ while they solve the problem with traditional generating facilities such as large coal and natural gas plants. But now, as wind power — the fastest growing energy sector in the world — begins to play an increasing role in power supply, that procedure has come under intense scrutiny from all sides. Years ago, if a particular wind power plant disconnected from the grid it had no major impact on the rest of the system. That’s no longer the case today. Grid operators and FERC have acknowledged that wind power’s increasing presence on the grid requires a different and more deliberate approach. “The issue is simply that in the five seconds or so that follows a voltage incident, when that happens, they (grid operators) want the wind farm to keep running the way it was. Dropping off could exacerbate things,” said Mike Jacobs, Acting Policy Director for AWEA. “It’s all about stability in very short timeframe, so if the wind is blowing a little, or a lot, the disturbance on the grid should not be affected by the windfarm.” This is known as a “low-voltage ride-through” capability. GE Energy, the largest U.S. wind power player, is already offering this capability for their wind turbines. Other manufacturers are on their way to including the feature in their machines as well. Staying connected to the grid at all times is common in Europe and would move the U.S. industry closer toward a standardized, global interconnection standard. More importantly, Jacobs sees this as a sign the traditional power industry is beginning to take wind power seriously. “Now that there is more wind coming to the grid, there is all this talk about grid codes to raise this standard,” Jacobs said. “We’re glad the federal regulatory commission said this was a good thing to worry about.” Streamlining the Interconnection Process While FERC emphasized the growing role of wind in meeting the nation’s energy needs and proposed the low voltage ride-through standards for the industry, the Commission did not mandate some procedural reforms that the wind industry hoped would streamline the interconnection process. AWEA said they continue to find that the interconnection queue and study processes require more time than the construction of the actual facilities. “One of the ongoing problems for wind power is interconnection and service from the utility has become a bit of a Frankenstein,” Jacobs said. When a utility receives a request for a wind power facility interconnection with the grid, they initiate a three-stage study. The first looks at where the proposed wind-generated electricity will flow. However, this stage in the study requires a final plan of the wind facility — including specific turbines and other equipment. It may sound like a small affair, but, the first level study can take as much as a year to be completed and wind project developers would prefer to have some flexibility with equipment in the first level study in case they chose to make small changes in the meantime. The facility specifics, they argue, are not truly needed until the second level study. FERC did not address this request but Jacobs said AWEA will continue to press for the change. Other FERC guideline changes simply involve re-appropriating existing technology to better suit grid operators. While every modern wind power production facility has its own supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), the resulting data streams regarding the wind farm are not normally accessible to grid-operators. Of course, if a wind facility cuts off in the event of a problem, the SCADA information and communication isn’t crucial to grid operators anyway. The Commission determined, however, that SCADA communication with local utility control centers would now be essential in order for wind power plants to stay constantly connected via the aforementioned low voltage ride-through capability. If wind power is to become a constant part of the electrical system, then grid operators need some level of communications and control in order to have all the variables needed to address grid issues. Wind Power Industry Reaction In terms of the low voltage ride-through mandate, the wind power industry may have to incur some slight manufacturing changes. But it’s a necessary, and very minor, growing pain according to industry sources. “It’s not going to be free, there are some costs to manufacturers, but it’s a very tolerable cost,” said Mark Haller, an independent wind power industry consultant and Chair of AWEA’s Transmission Committee. “Low voltage ride-through issues as a concept has been brewing for quite some time. They (the manufacturers) are generally prepared to step up to it.” Not only has the idea been anticipated, but since many wind power companies helped guide FERC’s interconnection revisions it comes as little surprise. The Danish wind power company Vestas was among them. Michelle Montague, representing the company’s U.S. wind power division, called the guidelines “a step in the right direction” and said it would take some time to see how they play out in the market. The largest U.S. wind power company, GE Energy, has a similar take. “We are at least directionally comfortable with what has been recommended,” said company spokesman Dennis Murphy. “There’s nothing here we take exception with, but we recognize it will probably change a great deal before all is said and done.” The specifications in these proposed rules are subject to comments, a final order by FERC and individual filings by the Transmission Providers, which are subject to comments and final approval by FERC. At that point, new projects that are seeking Interconnection Agreements will be subject to these standards. Wind power projects that have recently secured interconnection agreements are not affected by these proposed rules. And regardless of the specific final guidelines, the wind power industry appears more than pleased that the once-fringe technology is being welcomed into the structural fold of the traditional energy sector. “We’re glad FERC has weighed in on this issue because, like many in the industry, GE takes grid integration very seriously,” Murphy said. “We’re looking forward to helping wind be part of helping address and provide better grid stability.” The Commission is also seeking comment on whether there are other generating technologies that should comply with these or similar requirements. Other renewable energy technologies, such as solar energy, tend to be much smaller then 20 MW and therefore not subject to these new guidelines. Comments on the proposed rulemaking, Interconnection for Wind Energy and Other Alternative Technologies, should be submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Office of the Secretary within 30 days after the notice’s publication in the Federal Register.
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