Amid the ongoing push to decarbonize the nation’s power generation, an often overlooked but critical factor is the need to increase the grid’s ability to move renewable energy over long distances to areas where such resources may be less abundant.

For decades, leaders of generation and transmission cooperatives have been vocal advocates for prioritizing transmission upgrades as a crucial part of the energy transition.

Priti Patel, vice president and chief transmission officer for Great River Energy, a G&T based in Maple Grove, Minnesota, recently spoke with NRECA about the importance of robust transmission planning and development.

How important is transmission planning as more renewables get added to the grid?

Patel: Transmission is really the critical conduit for bringing renewables to the load centers in a cost-effective manner while also addressing reliability issues today and into the future. Building the right transmission is essential, and we need to move on this quickly. Wind and solar put different demands on the transmission system than conventional power plants. There is also a national trend of retiring a lot of conventional resources even as intermittent renewables continue to grow, which poses significant reliability challenges.

A strong regional backbone transmission system is needed to accommodate these changes and mitigate challenges stemming from extreme weather events.

The Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which GRE is a member of, is pursuing improvements to your region’s 345-kilovolt transmission grid as part of a $30 billion package. Will those upgrades address existing generation as well as new resources like wind and solar?

Patel: These projects fan across mostly the northern tier of MISO, stretching through North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. They are focused on addressing reliability issues that are based on the assumptions that were identified in MISO’s Future One model.

MISO uses multiple forward-looking scenarios so that it can provide a range of future outlooks, including existing generation, wind and solar, and through these scenarios, all of the stakeholders are able to look at a number of project alternatives and the reliability issues that could stem from those scenarios.

Most agree that central station power will continue to play a significant role in meeting energy demand, but could expansion of renewables and the entry of more contracted providers increase the need for more transmission access?

Patel: Yes. The more dispersed your generation becomes, the more access points you need on the transmission system, convenient to where that generation is located. A stakeholder process that includes all of the entities involved in long-range transmission planning at MISO is critical. When you have everyone engaged and planners run a transparent, open and inclusive process that allows all voices to be heard, there are opportunities for the best projects to be proposed and approved by the MISO board.

What is GRE doing to preserve the value of existing transmission assets while at the same time hardening them to be less prone to weather-related challenges?

Patel: Aging transmission and distribution assets are a concern for many utilities and cooperatives across the country. The timing of upgrading those assets is impacted by better understanding the risks of regional weather events. We’ve conducted a complete resiliency analysis and upgraded many of our transmission design standards to help reduce damage from future regional risks. For example, galloping transmission lines in high winds or tension damage caused by icing. We’re also planning to add more support structures to prevent lines from cascading and structural failures when derecho-level windstorms occur.

The $30 billion investment that MISO has proposed is only part of a multidecade plan that includes another $70 billion in upgrades by 2030. What are those Phase II goals?

Patel: MISO’s Phase II goals recognize that carbon-based generation will continue to retire due to market pressures and that storage technology could play a larger role in our industry. It also accounts for the continued electrification of the transportation sector. Planners are looking at where more distributed generation fits and what the future looks like if our homes and businesses become more focused on meeting more of their energy needs with electricity.

The transmission grid is truly a part of what will enable energy sufficiency going forward. The ability to have 24/7 service, which we in this country are so accustomed to, will take different dynamics and a huge part of that is the transmission grid. Another part of that will be energy storage, but there are various scenarios still in play. You can look at the value of storage, the price of energy and whether the storage is an asset depending upon where it's placed.

The location of storage will be something that every utility will have to apply to its system and the needs of local consumers. This will help them determine how it can provide the most benefit at the most consistently affordable costs. Among the options are four-hour battery storage versus multiday energy storage.

Is there a future for existing generation sites and their supporting infrastructure, now underused or idled by changing market realities?

Patel: Existing assets, including transmission corridors and legacy generation sites, need to be optimized for what might be needed for future use. There will still be ample demand to move energy to the people and facilities that need it.

Existing corridors still bring a lot of value to the power market. GRE’s transmission employees have been working very closely with MISO and our neighboring utilities to identify opportunities for future transmission projects that use existing lower voltage corridors to accommodate higher voltage transmission. In addition, we owe it to our communities and our member-consumers to optimize existing sites before seeking additional corridors and sites in their communities.

The need for speed in getting transmission approved and built is really critical, and one way to facilitate speed is to use existing or adjacent corridors to design, develop and build more robust, higher-capacity transmission to reduce congestion and meet increased demand.

What can you share about changes or adjustments to GRE’s planning?

Patel: GRE transmission planning has always been active in the upper Midwest and at MISO. But now more than ever, our involvement is mission critical to ensure affordability to our members and reliability. Investing in transmission benefits the entire power market because it allows for the transfer of economic energy across a large footprint, and it also allows for the mitigation of congestion, reducing pricing pressures. Our obligation is to provide cost-effective transmission allowing for the reliable transfer of power from generation to load, and our role in MISO’s long-range transmission planning process is to identify and support projects enhancing reliability. We must ensure that transmission capabilities are flexible and can be leveraged to meet future needs.

Whether you agree or not with the energy transition now under way, it is happening, and reliability has to continue to be our No. 1 priority. It’s the principle that binds all cooperatives together. Reliability has always been table-stakes, but it’s important to recognize that how we achieve that in the future may be very different than how we achieved it in the past. In addition, affordability is every bit as important.

When we participate in regional planning, our co-ops have a strong voice in how costs get allocated. This helps ensure that the energy transition does not occur on the backs of public power providers. We need to make certain that policymakers and regulators understand the importance of cooperatives and our commitment to maintaining affordability while also supporting new and more robust transmission.