Clean Line Energy CEO: Staying the course critical for HVDC wind transmission projects

transmission hvdc elp

Once work actually begins, the Plains & Eastern Clean Line will be the United States’ first long-distance overhead high voltage direct current transmission line constructed in more than 20 years.

Parent firm Clean Line Energy Partners CEO Michael Skelly can hardly believe it himself when he says, if all is clear, that they could break ground later this year and be online delivering wind power from western Oklahoma to Arkansas and the southeast U.S. by 2020.

Skelly also could offer many stories about the hills and valleys encountered by his company since the Plains & Eastern regulatory and public communication campaigns began seven years ago. Yet only one word really matters to him.

“Persistence,” he told Electric Light & Power.

A project which could be commonplace in China or South America is finally coming to America, barring 11th-hour type regulatory reversals or landowner outcry. The Plains & Eastern Clean Line will deliver up to 4,000 MW of wind power from the Oklahoma Panhandle to Arkansas and ultimately the Tennessee Valley Authority via a 600-kV HVDC line that is designed to reduce voltage sag over the great distance.

“It’s taken seven years and will cost $2.5 billion to build,” Skelly told a packed University of Tulsa crowd during the school’s Friends of Finance Executive Speaker Series recently. “It will need 2,000 modern wind turbines in the Panhandle to fill the line to its ready capacity.”

If you build it, the wind developers will come, Clean Line has wagered. But the historical power grid was built to extend from traditional generation stations such as coal-fired and gas-fired plants, so new infrastructure is needed to transport electricity from places where the wind blows and the sun shines best and most efficiently. Clean Line’s Skelly contended that western Oklahoma can do both, and the 720-mile path will open up opportunity for numerous businesses in every link of the supply chain.

Internationally, China, Brazil and other nations long have built HVDC transmission lines as part of their modernized grid. The United States has lagged in this area, usually focusing on alternating current lines within regional subsets of the grid. Clean Line narrowed its focus to HVDC some years ago with the idea that it cuts down on line losses and voltage sag over the long distances planned for these projects.

In addition to Plains & Eastern, Clean Line is pushing ahead for a Grain Belt Express HVDC line to bring Kansas wind through Missouri and on to the Midwest grid; the Western Spirit Clean Line will deliver wind power from New Mexico into western U.S. with construction planned to begin as early as 2017 and lasting one year.

GE Energy Connections will build the DC converter stations along the Plains & Eastern Clean Line route to shift direct current to alternating for consumption. Oklahoma-based Pelco Structural will provide the support poles.

Houston-based Clean Line Energy Partners has five projects, all but one involving HVDC lines. Many critics think the concept is foreign and that it forgets the AC vs. DC “War of Currents” won by Westinghouse and others more than a century ago. Skelly can point to progress overseas with HVDC but also, closer to home, the Pacific DC Intertie bringing approximately 3,100 MW of mainly hydro power from the Bonneville Power Administration grid in northern Oregon to power almost half of Los Angeles.

“It was much debated for years,” Skelly recalled. “Today, that line is about 45 years old and has been upgraded a couple of times. It’s the backbone of the electric grid in the western United States.”

He also predicted that coal will not be a part of the U.S. generation fleet by 2050. The ratio, he predicted, will be 20 percent nuclear (similar to now), 25 percent wind, 15 percent solar and the remaining 40 percent in natural gas.

Technological innovations are driving wind’s rise, including lighter blades, dramatically improved control technologies including full-span pitch control, he added. What will impede coal is pure economics.

“I just think it’s going to be hard to keep up,” Skelly said. “Economically coal has a hard time because of relatively high fixed costs, it takes a continuous cycle of capital investments… The coal fleet is quite old… This is just economics, this is not policy. It’s hard to make investments in 50-year-old assets.”

Clean Line’s rocky road is far from smoothed out completely. Missouri regulators have rejected their stretch of the Grain Belt Express, so the company is getting ready to re-file. The Plains & Eastern still needs to finish right-of-way deals along its route. But the CEO was confident in telling the University of Tulsa Friends of Finance crowd just why he expects the Clean Lines to prevail.

“The exciting thing is we’re putting together assets” which will contribute to the future wealth and diversity of the American economy, Skelly said. “We don’t know exactly where we’ll get our energy over the next 100 years, but we know it’s going to be different. We’re solving another challenge in how to get the best wind to market.”

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