An Effort to Spread Green Power to Coasts

Matthew L. Wald|The New York Times

For 40 years, the North American electric system has operated as three loosely linked grids, but a new transmission company is aiming to unite them. That union, if consummated, could have strong implications for renewable energy.

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The company, Tres Amigas, proposes a huge power hub near Clovis, N.M., covering more than 20 square miles. It would be remote from populated areas but near the fulcrum of the continent’s wind and solar resources. Tres Amigas plans to make regulatory filings on Tuesday in pursuit of its goal.

The project could, backers say, transform a region that is a sparse frontier for transmission lines into a robust intersection that would allow immense transfers of power across the country. The direction of flow would depend on where the wind was blowing, the sun was shining and the temperatures were creating extra electrical demand.

The project would link the Eastern Interconnection, which stretches from Halifax to the Dakotas and New Orleans; the Western Interconnection, which runs from British Columbia to a slice of Baja California, and extends east toward the Rockies; and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, a transmission grid covering most of that state.

Only eight small connections now link the grids, with a total power-moving capacity of 2,000 megawatts, equivalent to the output of a couple of nuclear plants. The first phase of the project would more than double the size of the linkage, to 5,000 megawatts, and it might eventually be expanded to 30,000 megawatts.

James J. Hoecker, who was chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission during the Clinton administration, said 31 states had adopted quotas for renewable energy and Congress might establish a national quota.

But the places where it is easiest to generate such power, like the windy states in the middle of the country or the sunny states of the desert Southwest, do not have the heaviest demand. Already, wind turbines in some areas, notably Texas, sometimes generate more power than can be delivered to market.

“How do we get this massive amount of renewable energy that’s in the middle of the country, where there aren’t that many customers, to the coasts, where they can use it and where they may be legally required to use it?” Mr. Hoecker said.

Phillip G. Harris, former president of a grid organization that oversees the Middle Atlantic states, founded Tres Amigas and designed the proposed hub. His part of the project would cost less than $2 billion, but other companies would have to spend substantial sums building transmission lines. Mr. Harris said he had obtained letters of intent from three major transmission companies to build such lines.

The American Superconductor Corporation , one partner, will supply special cables to move huge amounts of electricity.

“The size and scale of this thing are dramatic,” said an electricity industry expert, Peter S. Fox-Penner, principal of the Brattle Group. His firm recently predicted that $250 billion in transmission investments would be needed by 2030, but he said the Tres Amigas project raised an economic question, whether enough electricity would be traded to justify the cost.

The project would use several new technologies on an unprecedented scale, to do two jobs. It would move energy among grids that all use alternating current, but the alternation is not synchronized, and it would use advanced electronic controls to stabilize each grid. Mr. Harris said electricity users would benefit from the energy transfers, and the hub would reduce large differences in price among the grids.

His company plans to file two applications with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Tuesday. One seeks approval to operate an electricity market, a forum for arranging purchases and sales. The other asks the agency to affirm that the Texas electric grid can remain free of federal regulation even if Texas utilities join the proposed hub. The utilities view that as a requirement for their participation.