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Why growing wind and solar projects can't connect to the grid

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The dream of clean energy is slowly becoming a reality. Companies are drawing up plans for thousands of wind and solar projects across the country. But many are running into a big obstacle. They can't get connected to the electric grid. Dan Charles from NPR's Planet Money team looked into the reasons why.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Lyle Jack wants to build a wind farm here on the grassy hills of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

LYLE JACK: The turbines will be out by about northwest of here all through this area out here and over.

CHARLES: Kind of in that direction.

JACK: Yeah.

CHARLES: It makes sense. This region is so windy.

JACK: Yeah. The Saudi Arabia of wind, they call it.

CHARLES: Lyle convinced a majority of the Native tribes in South Dakota to join forces and create a wind power company, the Oceti Sakowin Power Authority. They're planning two big projects. But to connect their windmills to power lines, to send their clean electricity out into the world, they need permission in advance from the organization that manages the electricity grid in this region, the Southwest Power Pool, or SPP. And David Kelley, the vice president of engineering at SPP, says they have competition.

DAVID KELLEY: So these two projects that you mentioned - they are just two of, you know, just really hundreds of projects that are trying to be developed.

CHARLES: Across the country, it's thousands waiting in a long line called the interconnection queue, trying to get permission to connect to the grid. Engineers like David have to figure out whether they can do that safely. They use computer simulations to see what happens in an imaginary world when they hook up new wind and solar farms.

KELLEY: So we identify that there's a line that's overloaded, a transformer that's overloaded, a stability problem that occurs on the grid. And so we have to identify a fix.

CHARLES: The fix might be a bigger power line, new transformers. And a very important point - if you are building a wind farm and it's going to need some bigger power lines, you have to pay for them, which can make or break a project. The Oceti Sakowin Power Authority submitted its request to SPP in 2017. More than four years later, SPP replied.

CAROLINE HERRON: And it was just a kick in the gut.

CHARLES: This is Caroline Herron, a consultant who's been working with Lyle Jack on this project. SPP said they'd have to pay for hundreds of miles of new or rebuilt power lines, lots of new transformers. It would boost the total cost of the project by about 75%.

HERRON: I mean, it was just exorbitant. You could not - if that was the true cost, these projects would not be built.

CHARLES: That price did come down over the following months. But in the end, they were still on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars, part of which they had to pay right away. They missed that deadline, had to drop out of line. Most wind and solar companies can tell similar stories. And there's a big push now to shake up the system with new federal rules for the interconnection queue so it moves faster. In the future, local utilities may pay for some of these required upgrades. And there's new federal funding for power line projects. Some of these changes are even bringing Lyle Jack's project back from the dead. He's optimistic.

JACK: I want something good for our people, you know? I want something big for our people.

CHARLES: They're getting ready to jump back into that interconnection queue.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Charles in Pine Ridge, S.D.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE END OF THE OCEAN'S "LIKE HONEY FROM THE BRANCH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Charles
Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.
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