$2.5B project aims to bury siting woes for high-voltage lines

Source: By Jeffrey Tomich, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Thousands of tons of grain, timber, coal and other goods snake their way east along the Canadian Pacific railroad each day.

A venture backed by a Danish investment firm and Germany’s Siemens AG wants to share the rail corridor to move another commodity: wind energy.

The companies are key investors in what would be a $2.5 billion high-voltage pipeline to transmit cheap Iowa wind power and other energy from the Upper Great Plains to the eastern U.S.

The SOO Green Renewable Rail project would stretch almost 350 miles from Mason City, Iowa, in the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) grid to a Commonwealth Edison substation near Chicago, which is in the PJM Interconnection LLC grid. The line would be able to transmit 2,100 megawatts, enough power to light about 2 million homes.

“SOO Green is a seams-buster connecting MISO to PJM,” said Trey Ward, CEO of developer Direct Connect Development Co. LLC, referring to the border between the nation’s two largest wholesale power markets.

The line would also be built underground and mostly along existing Canadian Pacific railroad lines, a siting strategy initially used by telecommunications companies when they built out their fiber-optic networks.

The project is the latest effort to expand access to renewables by bringing wind energy from the rural Plains to more populated eastern cities. Numerous studies have identified the need for more long-haul transmission linking regional power grids as a key to enabling greater penetration levels of clean energy.

It also fits with the vision for the “North American Supergrid” drawn up by Alexander “Sandy” MacDonald, former director of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo. He has championed a North American network of high-voltage direct current lines as a backbone for existing interstate power grids (Energywire, Dec. 19, 2017).

“This is the first link of that supergrid,” Direct Connect President Joe DeVito said.

Beth Soholt, executive director of the Clean Grid Alliance, a group working to advance wind and solar energy in MISO, said the cable technology and railroad co-location is a “game changer” for Midwest transmission.

“The biggest barrier in particular in the western area of the MISO footprint is the lack of transmission,” she said.

There are “thousands of cost-effective megawatts” of renewable energy in the region that just need a market, Soholt said. “The resource is not the issue.”

So far, attempts to develop such projects, such as a trio of Clean Line Energy Partners LLC HVDC lines linking wind farms in the Plains to population centers in the East, have run into landowner opposition and legal and political challenges (Energywire, Nov. 16, 2018).

The SOO Green project differs in critical ways that not only make it more viable, but also “set the standard” for how U.S. transmission is developed, Ward said.

Ward and DeVito said in an interview that advances in converter and cable technology enable what would be the first-of-its-kind underground HVDC line.

While still about twice the cost of a comparable overhead line, “the cost of doing this has come way down” with advances in technology that make it economically feasible, Ward said.

Other underground HVDC lines have been built offshore along the East Coast, but there’s nothing else of the length and voltage class being proposed in the United States, company executives said.

Plans call for burying the cables in a 2.5-foot-wide-by-5-foot-deep trench, mostly along the CP railroad right of way. Burying the lines and co-locating the project with the railroad will streamline permitting and avoid the fierce landowner opposition that has historically dogged other transmission projects, Ward said.

Direct current technology is also key to co-locating the line along the railroad right of way. There have been previous attempts to share railroad corridors that didn’t work because the alternating current technology interfered with railroad signals.

And unlike other projects dedicated to move energy from a specific project, developers said the line will be “tied” more broadly to the MISO grid.

“Geographic diversity allows us to have more renewable energy more of the time,” Ward said. “We can draw from the entire region.”

SOO Green would be a so-called merchant transmission line, meaning utilities or other wholesale power customers that purchase transmission service on the line would pay for it instead of costs being shared more broadly among utility customers across the grid.

The project is currently owned by an unnamed group of private investors and Canadian Pacific. But it’s being sold to a group of investors that includes Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners (CIP) and Siemens. The engineering company will also handle design, engineering and manufacturing of the HVDC converter stations.

CIP, which opened a New York office last year, has a 50 percent stake in Vineyard Wind LLC, an offshore wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts, and has invested in several wind and solar projects across the United States.

Construction of the SOO Green line will be managed by another investor, New Jersey-based Jingoli Power LLC.

Project development is expected to take two to three years with another three years for construction. The line is expected to be operational in 2024.

The project will require review under the National Environmental Policy Act, as well as state environmental approvals. In Iowa, any large electric transmission line located outside a city also must have a franchise from the Iowa Utilities Board.

At this point, developers don’t believe they’ll need to seek specific approval from the Illinois Commerce Commission.