By John Kemp
LONDON Jan 4 Clean Line Energy Partners has
taken the first steps towards developing a long-distance
transmission network to bring abundant wind power from the U.S.
Great Plains to customers in the Tennessee Valley and the rest
of the Southeast.
On Dec. 21, the U.S. Department of Energy announced it would
prepare an environmental impact statement for the Plains and
Eastern Clean Line Transmission Project - the most advanced of
four projects Clean Line is developing to take wind power from
the plains toward the coasts. ().
If it is eventually approved, a single high-voltage direct
current (HVDC) transmission line with capacity to deliver 3,500
megawatts (MW) would run over 700 miles from wind farms in
western Oklahoma, southwestern Kansas and the Texas Panhandle to
Tennessee and the rest of the Southeast.
Other attempts to plan and build long-distance transmission
lines have failed owing to opposition from local landowners and
But Clean Line is seeking a partnership with the U.S.
Department of Energy and has already got qualified backing from
major environmental lobbying groups, making the project much
more likely to succeed.
Power markets in the Plains-area regions of the three states
are currently saturated. Local wind producers often receive very
low and sometimes even negative prices, because there is not
enough transmission capacity to send excess power to
neighbouring areas. By easing congestion, the Plains and Eastern
Clean Line would support higher power prices and the continued
build-out of wind farms.
More renewables would also help relieve looming shortages in
the Southeast. The region is projected to see
higher-than-average growth in power consumption over the next
two decades but is unusually dependent on coal-fired power
plants, many of which are threatened by environmental
The federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which
provides power for 9 million people across seven states, plans
to obtain 50 percent of its electricity from carbon-free
sources. It has already entered into agreements with wind farms
outside its territory for thousands of megawatts but needs
thousands more to reach its goal.
The Plains and Eastern Clean Line would connect with the TVA
near Memphis and make more wind power available across the TVA
and neighbouring service areas.
Plains and the other Clean Lines are just one illustration
of the rising interest in long-distance transmission systems.
The existing power network was designed to connect
electricity customers with nearby power plants, not to shift
power produced in one region to consumers in another. But the
shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewables such as wind
and solar will require much more long-distance capacity.
The best sites for wind farms are found mostly in a band
down the centre of the country stretching from North Dakota and
Montana in the north to Texas and New Mexico in the south. By
contrast, power demand is concentrated along the East and West
The transmission system lacks enough capacity to move such
huge amounts of power. Existing wind farms have more or less
filled up all the spare capacity across the Eastern
Inteconnection, the giant synchronised grid that links up power
markets in the eastern two-thirds of the country.
As a result, new wind farms are increasingly being built
nearer to the coasts to be closer to customers, even though such
locations have lower average wind speeds than on the plains and
are therefore more expensive and less effective.
Between 2005 and 2009, the geographical centre of new wind
installations on the Eastern Interconnection shifted 220 miles
east from near Kirksville in Iowa to Ottawa in Illinois,
according to Clean Energy.
The Plains and Eastern Clean Line is one attempt to reverse
this shift. Large areas near the origin of the Clean Line have
average wind speeds of 9.0 metres per second (about 20 miles per
hour) compared with less than 6 miles per hour in the target
delivery market of the Southeast.
The Clean Line is just one piece of a much larger puzzle. In
2008, the Joint Coordinated System Plan (JCSP), prepared by the
major transmission operators in the Eastern Interconnection,
estimated the network would need an extra 7,500 miles of HVDC
lines to be able to accommodate 20 percent wind generation by
The Department of Energy's Eastern Wind Integration and
Transmission Study (EWITS) in 2011 came to a similar conclusion.
"Planning for (new) transmission is imperative because it takes
longer to build new transmission capacity than it does to build
new wind plants," the study warned.
SECTION 1222 AGREEMENT
Building more transmission capacity is a priority for the
federal government. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
(FERC) allows rates of return of as much as 12-13 percent for
investments in transmission, which has triggered an upsurge in
interest from utilities across the country, according to a
recent article in the Wall Street Journal ("U.S. Electricity Use
on Wane" Jan 2).
In 2010, the Department of Energy invited proposals for new
or upgraded transmission projects. In response, Clean Line
Energy submitted an application for a partnership agreement with
the department and with the Southwestern Power Administration to
develop and build the Plains and Eastern Clean Line.
Section 1222 of the 2005 Energy Policy Act allows the
Department of Energy to "design, develop, construct, operate,
maintain or own" new and existing electric transmission lines,
either on its own or in partnership with other organisations,
subject to some restrictions (42 USC 16421).
The department's financial contribution is strictly limited
by law. But partnering with the government brings other
benefits. "Clean Line foresees the involvement of the Energy
Department and Southwestern in ... three critically important
areas: public outreach, siting and permitting," its project
"Southwestern has a long history of working cooperatively
with utilities, landowners, state officials and others in
helping meet their needs and at the same time serving national
interests," Clean Energy explained.
Southwestern can also acquire rights of way from holdout
landowners, if necessary, by employing the federal government's
power of eminent domain.
Clean Energy has promised to acquire land voluntarily as
much as possible and use state-level eminent domain laws only
States typically allow utilities to use eminent domain for
siting transmission lines. Clean Energy may struggle, however,
to win utility status in some transit states it carries
electricity across but does not serve, so it needs backup
eminent domain powers from the federal government.
Finally, Clean Energy's projects will need government
permits under the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
"Through the section 1222 process, the project will benefit
from the Energy Department and Southwestern taking a leading
role in coordinating federal permitting actions and overseeing
necessary NEPA analyses." In plain language, it may be easier to
get an environmental permit if the government is a partner in
Like other transmission projects, HVDC lines have proved
popular with investors but only after they have reached an
advanced stage and are construction ready. Investors remain
leery of the complexity and high risk of failure while a project
is being designed and applying for permits and rights of way.
Clean Line already has financial backing from ZAM (Ziff
Asset Management) Ventures. On Nov. 27, Clean Line announced a
$40 million equity investment from Britain's National Grid
National Grid brings cash, credibility and expertise. It
already has experience owning and operating transmission
systems, including HVDC links, in both the United States and the
United Kingdom. National Grid built and operates the existing
HVDC link between New England and Canada and is involved in
Britain's interconnectors with France and the Netherlands.
Completing the planning, permitting and siting processes for
transmission systems takes five to seven years or longer,
according to Clean Line. The Plains and Eastern link is unlikely
to enter service until towards the end of the decade.
But it is an important first step. Many more such links will
be needed in the next 10 years if wind and solar generation
continues to grow.