Building wind power superhighways

Source: By Julie Wernau, Chicago Tribune reporter • Posted: Monday, October 6, 2014

Enter Michael Skelly, a Houston businessman who envisions building five superhighways — transmission lines — to carry vast amounts of wind-generated power across more than 3,000 miles, multiple states, hundreds of jurisdictions and thousands of pieces of privately owned land.

The lines, the diameter of a human arm, would be hoisted on 150-foot-tall structures, about the height of the Statue of Liberty foot to top of torch.

The founder and president of Clean Line Energy Partners has two $2 billion lines in the works that would slice through Illinois: Rock Island Clean Line across the top of the state, and Grain Belt Express downstate, each shipping enough electricity to power 1.4 million homes annually. Importing that much cheap wind power has the potential to dramatically cut electricity prices in Illinois and help the state meet its goals of deriving 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources such as wind and solar by 2025.

Skelly’s idea is that with high-voltage lines crisscrossing the United States from every area where the wind blows, they would nearly always carry wind-generated power. That’s significant because in Illinois and states to the east, wind blows intermittently, which results in electricity generated in fits and starts.

“This is necessary and helpful to a cleaner energy mix, a more diverse energy portfolio,” said Skelly, 52. “If it’s all connected, then the wind is always going to be blowing somewhere. Not all the time. But with a much higher confidence interval.”

His efforts have brought together an odd collection of bedfellows, pro and con, who, under any other circumstance, would be unlikely pals at a Texas barbecue.

Just 24, the soft-spoken 2012 Princeton University grad was in Belize four years ago with other environmentalists fighting offshore drilling. Today, Elbert is fighting on the side of an energy company instead of against it.

“I’ve always been concerned about climate change,” she said. “This could enable so much wind power to get integrated into the grid.”

The opposition combines farmers and ranchers concerned about property rights with giant power companies concerned about the effect Clean Line would have on power prices. They say those lines will also be used to transmit “dirty” coal-power-generated electricity, and that Clean Line is a misnomer, a branded marketing campaign, they say, that has pulled the wool over the eyes of gullible people.

“At least 50 percent of the time, it’s going to be transmitting coal,” said Jennifer Gatrel, the mouthpiece of a group of about 3,500 people who call themselves Block Grain Belt Express, so named because it is trying to block a transmission line by that name that would run from Kansas through Missouri and Illinois and end in Indiana.

It’s true that anyone can buy the right to reserve space on the privately owned transmission line, Clean Line said, though it believes that, given the location of those lines, wind developers are the most likely candidates.

In fact, the company’s opposition to wind power generators receiving tax credits got it kicked out of the American Wind Energy Association.

Though ComEd has opposed Clean Line’s projects in public filings, the company declined to make an executive available for an interview for this article, as did its parent, Exelon. In a statement, ComEd said the Rock Island project is “lacking essential elements” without detailing what those are.

Until now, transmission lines were largely built by utilities, added as needed — usually piecemeal — to get electricity to swaths of customers.

Clean Line is a new kind of business model, an independent interstate highway for shipping energy. Skelly’s company also sees itself as a way to inject new life into wind generation, which has been greatly slowed since at least 2010 by a lack of transmission lines in the most cost-effective regions for wind power.

After a wind turbine construction boom in the early 2000s, a long waiting list formed as developers clamored to snatch up the few areas left where wind power could be harnessed near urban areas along existing transmission lines.

In 2010, a group of government-sponsored engineers sat down to sketch out where transmission lines should be built to accommodate wind power. “The lines they came up with looked almost exactly like ours,” Skelly said.

Just one other project like Clean Line’s is in the works: the TransWest Express Transmission Project. Backed by Anschutz Corp., TransWest is a 725-mile direct current line from Wyoming, which has abundant wind, to the Southwest, where states are demanding more wind power.

The TransWest and Clean Line projects would be the first direct current transmission lines built in the United States in more than 50 years.

Skelly’s Rock Island line, which will begin in northwest Iowa and end in Illinois’ Grundy County, southwest of the Chicago area, would ship in power from 2,000 wind turbines that are expected to be built.

An Illinois Commerce Commission judge has issued a draft order approving the project with certain conditions, including that Clean Line cannot begin to build the project until the company has commitments for money to cover the project’s total cost.

The full commission is expected to vote on the project by year-end, possibly as early as this month; Iowa approvals are expected next year.

The Illinois route for the second project, the Grain Belt Express, hasn’t been worked out yet. Skelly said details of that project will likely be filed next year with the ICC.

Counties in Illinois have been offered $7,000 per mile per year for 20 years to host lines along the intended route. Landowners are being offered easement payments based on the fair market value of the property, along with payments for hosting structures, and for crop and soil damage. Clean Line said such a payment would total about $100,000 per half-mile.

Clean Line would rather have people buy into its idea, the reason that it has Colleen Nash attending meetings about the project in Iowa and Illinois. Nash said the company has served more than 2,000 pulled pork sandwiches in its pitch to convince people that they need a transmission line in their backyards.

“I feel really fortunate that something I’m personally interested in also contributes to the greater good,” Nash said.

Opponents are just as fiercely against Clean Line. Block Grain Belt Express’ Gatrel calls the Clean Line project a “green-washing Ponzi scheme.”

At a public hearing in Missouri about the line that would end in Indiana, Gatrel’s group packed a community center meeting room wearing neon T-shirts with slogans such as: “No need, no gain, no eminent domain.”

In Missouri, Clean Line is trying to build a line across the northern half of the state. It would pass over at least 500 pieces of privately owned land, including farms and ranches, as well as pipeline rights of way, en route to Indiana.

At Funny Pages Cafe in Moberly, Mo., Wayne Wilcox, a rancher, said he wasn’t necessarily opposed to eminent domain in this case.

“Supposedly, you have to take what they’re offering, but that’s all negotiable,” said Wilcox, who said he isn’t signing anything yet.

But that’s not the only reason he’s behind the line.

“I’m supporting the project because it’s good for the nation,” Wilcox said. “Wind energy is good for the nation.”

Aside from the feel-good notion of wind power generation, Skelly himself has a loyal following.

Lowell Newsom, 66, is a “community outreach associate,” a Clean Line employee who lives and works in the community where a project will be. His job is to help garner community support for the project.

“I believe that we need to use more renewable energy in the county. I’m passionate about that,” said Newsom, of Chariton County, Mo.

But he said it was Skelly who earned his undying respect and loyalty.

Skelly “didn’t have the mahogany, the thick carpeting, the trappings,” Newsom said of the first time he went to Skelly’s office in Houston. After a public hearing on the transmission line project in Moberly, Newsom said he was shocked as he watched Skelly sweep the floor after the public left.

“He is literally a guy I would take the hill for,” Newsom said.

Employees said Skelly is a “character, biking to work in one of the least bike-friendly cities in the country and strong-arming people around him to do the same.

The University of Notre Dame grad served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Central America before going to Harvard Business School for his MBA.

Skelly, fluent in Spanish, developed a mile-long tramway system in Costa Rica in the early 1990s that provides tours of the rain forest from the air.

After that, he worked developing thermal, hydroelectric, biomass and wind energy projects in Central America.

Clean Line’s development funding is in place. The company’s investors include the Houston-based Zilkha family, which made its money in wind, oil and gas development. Another investor is ZBI Ventures, a subsidiary of Ziff Brothers Investments, the private investment firm of the billionaire Ziff family in New York that deals mostly in energy investments.

The company’s largest stakeholder is National Grid, which invested $40 million in Clean Line in 2013. National Grid, one of the largest investor-owned energy companies, owns transmission lines in the U.S. and United Kingdom.

That’s exactly what 82-year-old Carroll Beaman is betting on. He’s so convinced of Skelly’s vision for transmission lines that the former Exxon employee and owner of oil and gas wells in Texas and Oklahoma has leased up 170,000 acres of his neighbors’ land for a massive wind project in the Oklahoma Panhandle that would hook into one of Skelly’s transmission lines.

“I’m betting on it,” Beaman said of the Plains & Eastern project, which would move wind from Oklahoma to Arkansas and Tennessee.

Said Beaman, who was born at the height of the Dust Bowl: “Transmission has always been the problem; the wind has always blown here.”

Twitter @littlewern


Rock Island

Length: 500 miles

High-voltage direct current

Designed to: Move 3,500 megawatts of renewable energy from northwest Iowa to Grundy County, Ill.

Grain Belt Express

Length: 750 miles

High-voltage direct current

Designed to: Move 3,500 megawatts of renewable energy from new projects in western Kansas to Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.

Plains & Eastern

Length: 700 miles

High-voltage direct current

Designed to: Move 3,500 megawatts of renewable energy from the Oklahoma Panhandle region to Arkansas, Tennessee and other markets in the mid-South and southeastern U.S.

Centennial West

Length: 900 miles

High-voltage direct current

Designed to: Move 3,500 megawatts of renewable energy from new projects in eastern New Mexico and west-central Arizona to California.

Western Spirit

Length: 200 miles

Alternating current

Designed to: Move 1,500 megawatts of renewable energy from central New Mexico to various locations in the western U.S.