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A Texas Company Wants to Spread Wind Power Across the U.S.

Houston-based Clean Line Energy Partners has grand plans for national expansion.

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Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Clean Line Energy Partners, much like myriad other companies based in Houston, is jockeying for the opportunity to provide energy to the rest of the country. “If you have gas in one area, you put it in a pipeline and ship it to where it’s needed,” says Sarah Bray, the Vice President of Communications at the company. “You put coal on a train and bring it to where it’s needed, delivering it to a market and it goes through the local utility grid. That’s kind of our business model.”

But Bray isn’t talking about oil and gas, or any of the fossil fuels that have helped build Houston’s reputation as the energy capital of the world. She’s talking about renewable energy: abundant, cheap, and untapped wind power in the United States. To transport it, Clean Line has proposed building five transmission lines—three in the Midwest and two in the Southwest—each hundreds of miles long. The company’s vision, Bray says, is to “go to the windiest areas where there’s no transmission, but there are wind farms waiting to be developed, and build power lines to the market where there’s need.”

Wind energy is geographically dispersed, and the best wind resources are typically far from the infrastructure of the existing grids: the plains of North Dakota or Iowa, for example, or western Kansas and Nebraska. “If there are no lines, wind [power] is difficult to get going because there’s nowhere for the power to go,” says Chris Pattison, the assistant director of wind energy education at Texas Tech’s National Wind Institute.  

New transmission lines are the crucial link between wind energy and load centers, but companies often shy away from building them because of the cost. High-voltage lines are the most efficient type over long distances, running the costs up even further than more typical lower voltage lines. “You’re talking half a million dollars a mile, when the [wind farm] project is only $100 million itself,” Pattison estimates.  

Clean Line is modeling its projects off a transmission line expansion that Texas’s grid operator, ERCOT, completed in 2014. Stretching from the Panhandle and Hill Country to Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio, the 3,600 miles of wiringknown as Competitive Renewable Energy Zones (CREZ), cost $7 billion to build. The construction bill was passed on to the state’s utility customers, who subsidized the cost with slightly higher electricity fees.

With more than 18,000 megawatts of installed wind capacity, much of it made possible by the increased transmission capacity, Texas leads the nation in wind energy development. “As soon as they [built CREZ], hundreds of wind projects went in, very quickly, and now they have a superhighway to connect to,” says Pattison.

Clean Line’s privately financed projects would cost just over $9 billion to construct, and the company isn’t passing the costs on to consumers. In theory, just as the new CREZ lines led to new wind farms, each transmission line project will spur new wind power plants, which will pay to use capacity on the newly constructed transmission lines.  “Have you ever seen the movie Field of Dreams?” Pattison asks. “There’s a line in the movie that goes, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ That works for wind energy. [Wind farms] will come and connect.”

In the past eight years, however, Clean Line hasn’t actually completed any of its proposed projects. Building transmission lines across one state—even in energy-friendly Texas—would be difficult enough. And each of Clean Line’s projects crosses through multiple states and energy markets, which have separate permitting and review systems. “There isn’t a clear regulatory process to get it done. You have to take a state-by-state approach,” says Bray. That’s meant years-long waiting periods as public hearings and lawsuits from reluctant landowners drag on.

Plus, there is a changing landscape in Washington. “And in the meantime, things change. You go from the Obama administration to the Trump administration and priorities shift,” she adds. The Trump administration is decidedly more pro-coal than the previous administration, but, Bray points out, “President Trump is really pro-infrastructure. What we’re doing is building infrastructure.” The company has pledged to buy American manufactured components for its lines. 

Hopefully, Rick Perry sees it that way, too. The former Texas governor, now the Secretary of Energy, has the power to undo one of Clean Line Energy’s major advancements. In 2016, Obama’s Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz announced that the department would partner with the company to develop its Plains and Eastern Line, which would connect wind farms in the Texas Panhandle and Oklahoma to markets in Tennessee. The Department of Energy’s approval allowed the company to build its line through the state of Arkansas, where regulatory agencies had initially rejected the proposed line.

If Perry pulls support from the project—as Arkansas lawmakers’ have requested—Clean Line would have to reapply for approval from the state’s public utility commission, starting another years-long process with no ultimate guarantee. And as for the redundant electric grid reliability study that Perry commissioned, Bray says the company is “keeping an eye on it, but not worried about it.” The study, which has not been released yet, was conducted by a fossil fuel think-tank. Most analysts believe the purpose of the study is to find evidence implicating renewable energy in the slow decline of coal power plants. If so, it would only undermine Clean Line Energy’s limited progress.

Even so, Bray says she’s optimistic about working with the former Texas governor. “He’s seen first hand the benefits of wind energy and how it can bring jobs and economic growth in rural areas,” she says. “We think that’s a good thing.

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  • Scott Thorsen

    Lawsuits by reluctant landowners? Ha! Clean Line’s ignorance and arrogance caused Iowa legislatures to create laws preventing this Merchant Transmission Line.

    Arkansas legislatures wrote a Resolution not wanting Clean Line Energy Partners to do business in that state. Missouri Supreme Court has effectively denied Clean Line through an unrelated proposed project by an actual utility company. . Clean Line does get to the Illinois Supreme Court because of lawsuits by reluctant landowners. Clean Line had to argue it’s case before the state’s Supreme Court because it doesn’t want to work within the states established process for transmission siting. Clean Line wants the system to bend to their model rather than conform to establish siting procedures.

    Clean Line desires to establish transmission siting by the federal pipeline siting model.. Transmission siting is a state’s issue and not a federal siting issue. Electricity generation can be done literally anywhere. That’s why it’s a state issue. All states are not blessed with natural gas or oil reserves. That’s why pipeline siting is a federal issue.

    In the end, electrons are electrons. Clean Line has attempted to distinguish electricity generated by wind turbines as a special Identity Preserved product. In the end, electrons are electrons, and transmission siting is a state’s right and electricity generation is a generic bulk commodity.

    It’s amazing how many millions Clean Line Energy Partners investors has frittered away with nothing to show attempting to be the Rich Kinder of transmission. Houston should build a white elephant monument on McKinney steet for the failures of companies like Clean Line. The big question is when is this company going to finally die. My guess is they are nearly out of money in this venture capital endeavor.

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    • Keryn Newman

      Where are the customers, Clean Line? Where are the customers? If there are no customers, there is no “need” for any of your transmission projects.

  • Joel Dyer

    Clean Line sought the partnership with the federal department of energy to gain federal eminent domain authority. They plan to use that authority to force right of way easements on landowners. The sole justification for that partnership with the Feds was Clean Line’s self-serving claim that the transmission line is needed. There’s only one problem with that claim. Clean Line can’t find customers. No commercial demand means the transmission line is unneeded. Now, the Clean Line president wants the Feds to buy capacity on the line. Talk about contradicting oneself. “This transmission line is needed, so the Feds should act as the muscle when we take someone’s land. Oh, by the way. We can’t find customers, so we want the Feds to be our customer.”

    This company is like a monstrous hybrid of Enron and Solyndra. That’s the real story.

  • Moneyandworktime

    Since wind power is bringing many advantages to Texas, perhaps we can build these advantages for the whole US too.

    It would great to take cheap or free wind electricity at night to recharge our home batteries, recharge our electric vehicles, reheat our thermal mass floors, do laundry at night etc etc.

    So let’s fairly and equitably build the needed transmission lines so we can become 100% renewably powered so our families are safe, warm and comfortable.

    • Kansas Landowner

      Wind energy isn’t cheap or free for everyone. How about you build the renewable generation in YOUR backyard? No transmission lines necessary.

      “In the past eight years, however, Clean Line hasn’t actually completed any of its proposed projects”.
      Sort of true, but more accurately: In the past eight years, however, Clean Line hasn’t actually BEGUN any of its proposed projects.

      Clean Line is searching for new investors, that’s why articles like this one are written. The idea for long haul transmission is nothing new, unique, or novel. In fact, it’s 30-year outdated technology. The original investors have learned the hard way that their money will never see a return. $200 million into thin air. So how much are you willing to sacrifice for Clean Line?

      • Moneyandworktime

        Wind energy is now one of cheapest forms of new electricity in the US and globally. As of 2015, new wind cost 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour in the US. In Texas from 9pm to 6am electricity is free chiefly because wind blows strongest at night. Wind is 10% of the Texas grid.

        Personally I already have a 3.35 kilowatt SunPower solar PV system on my garage which produces 6,000 kilowatt hours annually.

        Do you have a better way to electrically connect regions to each other to share and export excess renewably powered electricity?

        • Kansas Landowner

          You missed the point. There are other costs to other people and things you aren’t considering, and I doubt utilities are giving away energy.

          I don’t agree that connecting regions over long distances is necessary or the most efficient way to serve end users. Local production and distributed generation keeps situations like ENRON from happening again.

          However, when transmission is needed, RTO’s are responsible for doing exactly what you are suggesting. When transmission is shown as necessary, it has been built. Using existing ROWs or burial are better ways. Speculative projects that bypass millions of people by denying them access so that the company can charge more to people in a different region is not the best way. It’s wasteful and definitely not green or sustainable. Make wind 30% or 50% of the Texas grid before you ship the energy to Florida. Florida can build their own generation, plenty of wind on the coast!

  • rlhailssrpe

    The article leaves out determinant information such that no valid judgment can be made on this long distance HVDC project. The comments are better. The essence is the all-in cost which is laid on the customer. It is easy to play games with financial matters so as to sound good if large costs are laid on someone else.

    There is no fundamental technical reason why a specific generation technology is tied to the long distant transmission system. Nuclear power plants and coal fired power plants could send their generation over the same conductor that carries wind gen. There is no justification for a separate system and there are a number of negatives to this notion. Thus wind in New England can work with other energy sources to supply NE needs.

    I take this article with a grain of salt.