Energy & environment

Power to the people

The US wind sector is performing well, despite President Trump’s low regard for renewables. However, the sector faces a major obstacle, in that the existing transmission system isn’t fit for purpose. We talk to Clean Line Energy Partners, one of the companies attempting to distribute energy from windy regions to areas of high demand.

President Trump’s election in 2016 may have seemed like a low point for renewable energy. Famously sceptical about climate change, the president quickly announced plans to pull out of the Paris Agreement and has brought in a raft of changes to US environmental policy.

To name just a few, the administration has scrapped various environmental regulations, pushed to increase oil and gas production, and plans to allow offshore drilling around the majority of the US coast. Renewable energy does not get a mention in Trump’s energy plan – small wonder from a man who has voiced support for “beautiful clean coal” and has described wind turbines as an “environmental and aesthetic disaster”.

It may seem surprising, then, that the country’s wind sector continues to perform well. According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA)’s 2017 market report, the US now has over 89GW in installed wind capacity, or enough to power 27 million homes.

“Wind is growing in the United States right now and that is because people overwhelmingly favor clean energy and because wind has become very cost competitive,” says Sarah Bray, a consultant at Clean Line Energy Partners. “It is always great to have political leadership in support of clean energy but I don’t think it is what drives growth.  What drives growth is demand, and demand really stems from price.”

Supply and demand

To a large extent, demand is being spurred by corporates, with a number of Fortune 500 companies (along with cities and universities) purchasing their own turbines. In 2017, agreements were executed by GM, Anheuser-Busch, Google and General Mills among others, with 23 contracts signed in total.

On top of that, costs are plummeting, with wind now 67% cheaper than it was in 2009. This may offset the demise of the wind energy production tax credit, which is due to expire in 2020.

There are also tentative signs that Trump could be changing his tune on wind. In October 2017, the US signed a deal with Denmark to expand cooperation on offshore wind power, and in December the energy secretary Rick Perry announced $18.5 million in support for R&D.

It’s an encouraging state of affairs for a country with so much unrealised potential. According to the US Department of Energy Wind Vision report, the proportion of wind in the energy mix could grow from 6% currently to 20% by 2030. Incredibly, the country’s second fastest growing job (just behind ‘solar photovoltaic installer’) is ‘wind turbine technician’, with more than 100,000 people now employed by the US wind sector.

“The U.S. has great potential for wind, both onshore and offshore,” says Bray. “We have a tremendous wind resource in the middle of the country, where it is less populated and turbine technology improvements have evolved to make lower onshore wind speed sites more economically viable in regions previously thought to have limited wind potential.”

All this said, Bray thinks there is one key issue that could present barriers to growth.

“The existing transmission system in the U.S. was created primarily as a result of local utility planning to connect population centers with nearby fossil fuel power plants,” she says. “It is now insufficient to meet the demands of our new energy economy. We need long-haul transmission lines to move America’s vast renewable energy resources to markets with a demand.”

She isn’t the first to note that the ageing grid is sorely in need of expansion. According to a 2009 vision paper, by AWEA and the Solar Energy Industries Association, “The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has identified transmission limitations as the greatest obstacle to realizing the enormous economic, environmental and energy security benefits of obtaining at least 20 percent of our electricity from the wind.”

The paper went on to recommend “green power superhighways” – interstate power lines that would carry electricity from wind farms to areas of high demand. This would prevent renewable energy from being “stranded” in scantily populated windy plains.

In the nine years since that paper was released, some progress has been made, particularly with regard to planning transmission, and establishing policies on how the grid expansion is financed. According to a 2015 report by the Edison Electric Institute, around $47.9bn worth of transmission lines will be developed in the years up to 2025.

Power lines

However, there is much more work to be done, which is where Clean Line Energy Partners comes in. Based in Houston, Texas, the company was launched in 2009 to develop a series of transmission lines, each of which will carry electricity from wind farms to energy-hungry cities.

“We are working on transmission lines that are designed to enable more renewable energy to get developed and deliver the low-cost clean power to markets with a demand,” says Bray.

At present the company has five transmission projects underway (Centennial West, Western Spirit, Rock Island, Grain Belt Express and Plains & Eastern,) along with the Mesa Canyons wind farm. Each of these projects is financed by Clean Line itself, which covers the upfront costs and risks of raising the capital. (Revenues will later be recovered by selling capacity on the line.)

To go through each of these projects in turn: Centennial West will be a 900-mile direct current transmission line, connecting New Mexico and Arizona with California and the West Coast. It will deliver 3,500 MW of renewable energy and cost around $2.5bn, while facilitating another $7bn of renewable energy investments. The line will save 2.8bn gallons of water each year – crucial for an area in which water is in short supply.

Western Spirit, which is being jointly developed with the New Mexico Renewable Energy Transmission Authority, will connect the wind-rich central region of New Mexico with the existing electric grid in northwest New Mexico. It will deliver 1,000 MW of power, and stretch 140 miles.

Rock Island will be a 500-mile high voltage direct current transmission line, delivering 3,500 MW from northwest Iowa to Illinois. It is named after the Rock Island Railroad, which allowed farmers to move their goods to market (not too dissimilar from the wind farm-to-market model Clean Line is using today).

Grain Belt Express, meanwhile, derives its name from the trains that transported produce from the country’s grain belt. It will span 780 miles, starting in Western Kansas.

‘Our Grain Belt Express Clean Line will deliver 500 MW to Missouri and 3500 MW to the Illinois/Indiana border, serving the PJM market,” says Bray. “We have regulatory approvals in Kansas and Indiana and are working through the regulatory process in Missouri right now; with a Missouri Supreme Court decision coming forth soon. We will need to revisit the regulatory process in Illinois after we get an approval in Missouri from the Public Service Commission.”

The final project, Plains & Eastern, will be a 700-mile high voltage direct current transmission line, taking low-cost wind from the Oklahoma Panhandle region and delivering it to points further east.

“We recently sold the Oklahoma portion of our Plains & Eastern Clean Line to NextEra Energy Resources, which was quite exciting for that project,” says Bray. “We have reached late stage development on that project in Arkansas and Tennessee and are going to slow down on additional preconstruction efforts until we get a customer lined up in the Southeast.”

Recently, it was reported that the US Department of Energy had terminated its support for Plains & Eastern, a decision which Clean Line Energy has said will place it on a “slower track”. The project has also faced opposition from landowners in Arkansas, who stand to be impacted by its construction. However, Clean Line’s website says it strives to develop the project “in a manner that is fair to affected landowners and respectful of their property rights”, and points out that Plains & Eastern is still viable.

Hurdles to overcome

As these challenges demonstrate, interstate transmission lines aren’t always easy to develop. They face sizeable regulatory hurdles, with the onus on developers to prove that their projects won’t harm existing resources.

This said, the need for such transmission lines is obvious. And while Clean Line Energy’s projects are some of the most ambitious, they are far from the only ones under development.

Notably, the billionaire Philip Anschutz is planning the TransWest Express, which will stretch 730 miles from Wyoming to the Desert Southwest region. This is one of around a dozen power line projects in the works that will transport clean energy to California.

Although large, multi-state projects are still difficult to get approved and built, America does have some precedent: we only need think of the Pacific DC Intertie, a transmission line running from Oregon to LA, which is even longer than Plains & Eastern and was completed nearly 50 years ago.

Developers may also have been thrown a lifeline in the form of President Trump’s new infrastructure plan. In essence, Trump has earmarked $200bn in federal funds to improve America’s infrastructure, with a view to encouraging an additional $1tn of investment. The plan targets so-called “inefficiencies” in the approvals process for infrastructure projects, and aims to make things easier for private developers.

Amy Farrell of the AWEA has welcomed the plan, stating that government regulations can cause delays that kill transmission projects.

“If Congress produces a balanced infrastructure bill that streamlines transmission siting and permitting, the President’s pen could unleash new energy resources and tens of billions of dollars in consumer savings each year while also making our grid more resilient to threats,” she said on a release.

Whether this will directly affect Clean Line Energy, and similar companies, is open to question. However, there are surely grounds for optimism. Whatever the political climate, the case for wind-energy (and its transmission to areas of need) is becoming clearer with every passing year.

“The United States possesses some of the best renewable energy resources in the world. Bolstered by these resources, the advancement of renewable energy technologies and the need for cleaner energy, the US is moving towards a clean energy economy,” points out Bray.

This article appears in the 2018 vol 1 edition of World Wind Technology

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