RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This week, we're looking at the nation's electrical grid and how we need to change it to be ready for a greener energy future. The old grid was designed to link coal-fired and nuclear power plants to nearby cities and towns, so now there aren't enough transmission lines to connect those cities to the places with the best potential for creating clean energy, places like the sunny Southwest and the windy Great Plains.
NPR's Elizabeth Shogren traveled to South Dakota to look at the challenges of getting renewable power onto the grid.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Joel Keierleber drives to the crest of a grassy hill at his cattle farm outside the small town of Winner in central South Dakota. He takes out an anemometer to test how many miles per hour the wind is blowing.
Mr. JOEL KEIERLEBER (Cattle Farmer): Gust is as high as 44 and a half; right now it bumps around 30 to 32.
SHOGREN: Keierleber doesn't really need to consult a wind meter to know his hills have world-class wind.
Mr. KEIERLEBER: There's a lot of wind erosion, there's a lot of building damage. Jim Liggett(ph), right down here in the house below us, has problems keeping the siding on his house.
SHOGREN: This is Class 6, or outstanding wind for a wind farm, but it's bone-chilling for people. Even on a spring day, with the wind chill it feels like the low teens. So we go inside to warm up.
Mr. KEIERLEBER: Okay, the green color on this map…
SHOGREN: In Keierleber's large kitchen, he unfolds a map that shows lots of properties around here 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. And the wind makes this a brutal place for man and beast. In the winter, the wind chill can be 80 below.
Mr. KEIERLEBER: Your face will be numb before you get 10 steps out, probably. And if it hits you just right, you won't be able to breathe for a little bit. It will take your breath away.
SHOGREN: He even has to feed his cattle more because of the wind.
Mr. KEIERLEBER: That's why you want to see them wind towers. Because then you'll at least see some good out of it.
SHOGREN: While we're talking, a wind developer arrives. He takes us outside to show us his plans for Keierleber's property.
Mr. SCOTT CONANT (Wind Developer, Prelude LLC Wind Farms): That would be a great spot for a series of wind turbines. That's exactly what I think.
SHOGREN: Scott Conant is a wind developer for a small Wisconsin company called Prelude Wind Farms.
As recently as last fall, he didn't even know that the capital of South Dakota is pronounced Pierre, not Pierre. But after 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.
Mr. CONANT: I think that there's no doubt that this can be a 1,000-tower project, and maybe more. The whole package is right here.
SHOGREN: Does this area lack anything?
Mr. CONANT: Transmission lines, in a word or two - and that's really all it lacks.
SHOGREN: That's why Conant and another wind developer are sitting with a couple hundred farmers in Winner Middle School. They came to hear Joe Dudak, a vice president of ITC Holdings Corporation.
Mr. JOE DUDAK (Divisional Vice President, ITC Holdings Corporation): 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.
SHOGREN: For more than a decade, wind developers have been salivating over windy places like this but wouldn't build wind 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.
Mr. DUDAK: We think you build it first, and you're there at the same time the wind energy is there.
SHOGREN: ITC's project would carry 12,000 megawatts of electricity from the windy Northern Plains to Chicago and points east. That's enough electricity for about 4.5 million homes. Dudak says the current grid isn't 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.
Mr. DUDAK: There is no superhighway system, and there's not enough room right now. The system is terribly constrained right now.
SHOGREN: To build its piece of a transmission superhighway, ITC needs lots of money and both federal and state approvals. Dudak's hoping that concerns about climate change, and new laws that mandate clean power, will translate into a green light.
Mr. DUDAK: It's possible we can be breaking ground in two years.
SHOGREN: But 900 miles away, at a control room for the Midwestern Electric Grid, talk of a big increase in wind power sends chills down the spine of Rob Benbow. He's the manager at the Midwestern Independent Transmission System Operator in suburban Indianapolis. It's kind of like an air-traffic control tower for the electric grid for 13 states.
It's before dawn, and a few dozen grid operators are sitting in front of a massive, curved screen, 20 feet high and 150 feet long. They're making sure enough power is being generated to match the surge in demand as the Midwest wakes up and turns on coffeemakers and hairdryers.
They also troubleshoot when power plants unexpectedly turn off. This morning, that warning 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.
Mr. ROB BENBOW (Manager, Midwestern Independent Transmission System Operator): 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.
SHOGREN: Wind power is not predictable. This morning, wind is steadily producing about 3,000 megawatts, about 5 percent of the total power being used in the region. But that's not always the case. Benbow says he's seen wind power become more variable as more wind farms come on line. And grid operators can't order wind plants to produce, like they can other plants.
Mr. BENBOW: If the wind is not blowing, you just don't have that resource available.
SHOGREN: And when the wind is blowing, it can be hard to make wind turbines shut down.
Mr. BENBOW: A lot of these plants are not manned. If we need to turn them off, we have to send a person out there to actually do that.
SHOGREN: 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 it for later use; and you can't count on it on hot, summer days when you need it most.
Mr. BENBOW: You can put all that wind in, but I still have to have all this other generation that I need to have available — all my coal, nuclear, all the gas — for my peak load day.
SHOGREN: So when Benbow thinks about lots of new wind turbines and transmission lines to carry their energy towards his control room, he sees more than clean energy. He sees a lot of headaches coming his way.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: All this week, we're reporting on the nation's electricity grid. Tonight on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we'll ask if a smarter grid will necessarily be greener. And on tomorrow's MORNING EDITION, as a new grid gets planned and built, big power companies are still working to keep America's lights on.
Unidentified Man: It doesn't have the same kind of sex appeal as new technologies and new, sort of, golly-gee-whiz - whether it's a new computer or software program or a new computer itself.
MONTAGNE: You can learn more about the plans for bringing renewable energy to the grid through an interactive map and other resources at npr.org/grid.