In a series of 10 stories airing this week on Morning Edition and All Things Considered and published here on NPR.org, we examine the costs, the politics and other challenges of upgrading the country's electricity grid.
Like lots of other farmers and ranchers in the northern Plains, Joel Keierleber has been flirting with wind power developers for years.
He knows his grassy slopes near Winner, S.D., have world-class wind, but there's always the same hitch: There aren't enough transmission lines to carry the electricity from rural areas like his to the big cities where the electricity is needed.
If the country is going to meet President Obama's ambitious green energy goals, the transmission system has to link up the places that offer the best chance of producing lots of clean energy, such as the sunny Southwest and the windy Plains.
Keierleber's property is considered Class 6, or "outstanding," for a wind farm, but it's bone-chilling for people. Even on an early spring day, it feels like it's in the low teens. In the winter, with the wind chill, it can be 80 degrees below zero.
"Your face will be numb before you get 10 steps," Keierleber says. "And if it hits you just right, you won't be able to breathe for a little bit. It will take your breath away."
Because of all the wind, Keierleber has to feed his cattle more, and his neighbor can't keep siding on his house.
"That's why you want to see wind towers. Then you'll at least see some good out of it," he adds.
In Keierleber's large kitchen, he unfolds a map that shows lots of properties near Winner that have been optioned by one wind developer or another. He says one reason ranchers here are so eager is that this place has never been good for farming. He only makes a profit three years out of five.
The latest wind developer to come courting is Scott Conant, from a small Wisconsin company called Prelude Wind Farms.
As recently as last fall, Conant had never heard of Winner, but after about 18 trips, he's learned the contour of the land, the speed and consistency of the wind, and the desire of local residents to host wind farms.
"I think that there's no doubt this area could be a 1,000-tower project, and maybe more. The whole package is right here," Conant says.
The Wind's There, But The Power Lines Aren't
Well almost. The only thing it lacks, Conant adds, is transmission lines.
One evening last month, Conant and another wind developer joined a couple hundred farmers and ranchers at Winner Middle School to hear a pitch from a transmission company called ITC Holdings Corp.
For more than a decade, wind developers have been salivating over windy places like this, but balked at building turbines without transmission lines. And utilities wouldn't string the lines without the wind farms. ITC wants to break that impasse, with a $12 billion transmission project.
"Who comes first, the generation or the line? That's been the problem that's probably plagued the transmission industry for the last 30 years. And that's why no transmission has been built," says Joe Dudak, a vice president of ITC, which is based in Novi, Mich. "We think you build it first, and you're there the same time the wind energy is there."
ITC's project would carry 12,000 megawatts of electricity from the northern Plains to Chicago and points east. That's enough electricity to power about 4.5 million homes. Dudak says the current grid is not up to the job of bringing green power to millions of homes and businesses — it's a patchwork of transmission lines strung decades ago by utilities — mostly connecting big polluting power plants to local customers.
"There is no superhighway system, and there's not enough room right now. The system is terribly constrained right now," he says.
Dudak hopes that concerns about climate change and new laws that mandate clean power will translate into a green light. "It's possible we can be breaking ground in two years," he says.
Jumping Hurdles To Wind Development
ITC already passed its first hurdle with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but it still needs lots of money and federal and state approvals to build its piece of a transmission superhighway, which it calls the green power express.
ITC is also awaiting an analysis from the Midwestern Independent Transmission System Operator, which is like an air traffic control tower for the electric grid in 13 states.
At the Midwest ISO's control room in Carmel, Ind., talk of a major increase in wind power sends chills down the spine of Rob Benbow, a grid manager. Before dawn on a spring morning, Benbow and a few dozen grid operators are shouting electricity jargon at each other in front of a massive curved screen that's 20 feet high and 150 feet long.
As people in the Midwest wake up and turn on coffee makers and hair dryers, the operators make sure enough power is being generated to match the surge in demand. A warning signal alerts them that a power plant has unexpectedly turned off. This time, it is someone else's problem. But Benbow worries that when wind power makes up a significant portion of his grid's electricity, managing it will cause him frequent problems.
Unpredictable Wind Makes Power Management Tough
"My biggest fear is if you see 20 percent wind on your system, and then it comes off at a time period where you don't have resources to replace it — that's going to, could, result in a blackout situation," he says.
Wind power is not predictable. That morning, the wind is steadily producing about 3,000 megawatts — about 5 percent of the total power being used in the region. But Benbow says he's seen wind power become increasingly variable as more wind farms come on line. And grid operators can't order wind plants to produce like they can other power plants.
"If the wind is not blowing, you just don't have that resource available," he says. And when the wind is blowing, it can be hard to make wind turbines shut down. "A lot of these plants are not manned — if we need to turn them off, we have to send a person out to actually do that," he says.
Lots of other things about wind frustrate the Benbows of the world — wind blows hardest at night when electricity demand is lowest, there currently aren't ways to store wind for later use, and you can't count on it on hot summer days when you need it most.
"You can put all that wind in, but I still need to have all this other generation that I need to have available — all my coal, nuclear, all the gas — for my peak load day," Benbow adds.
So when Benbow thinks about the new wind turbines and new transmission lines carrying their energy toward his control room, he sees more than clean energy. He also sees a lot of headaches coming his way.