Lawmakers cautious on Clean Line

Two US lawmakers are urging the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the nation’s largest federal government-owned electric utility, to take a cautious approach before agreeing to import large amounts of wind power from Oklahoma and Texas.

TVA, which serves seven southeastern states, signed a memorandum of understanding with Houston-based developer Clean Line Energy Partners to analyze the possibility of receiving up to 3.5GW of wind power via a proposed 700 mile (1,126km) overhead high-voltage direct current transmission line.

Clean Line’s “Plains and Eastern” 600kV line would cross Oklahoma and Arkansas and connect with a TVA substation near Memphis. The western part of the line would connect to the transmission system operated by the Southwest Power Pool in Oklahoma.

Nailing down TVA as a major customer would likely be sufficient for the $2bn project to become bankable and advance.

TVA, which serves about nine million customers, is looking at wind energy as a partial replacement for older coal-fired plants it is shuttering in response to stricter air and carbon pollution standards that the Obama administration is imposing. Part of the power could also be wheeled through TVA’s system to utilities in the southeast and mid-Atlantic region.

US Senator Lamar Alexander and US Representative Stephen Fincher, both Tennessee Republicans, sent a letter to chief executive Bill Johnson asking TVA to carefully weigh a range of potential issues with Clean Line’s proposal.

These include cost to ratepayers, energy security and reliability of wind power, why additional power is needed when TVA is forecasting reduced demand, and the economic argument for importing wind versus coal, hydro, natural gas and nuclear.

They were also guarded about Clean Line being given public-utility status in Tennessee, which would give it the ability to use eminent domain (also known as compulsory purchase) to acquire right-of-way for siting transmission lines.

“It’s up to the TVA board to decide what kinds of electricity to generate and purchase. But it is the responsibility of members of Congress to provide oversight to TVA policies, and these questions are part of that oversight,” Alexander wrote.

The US Energy Department is working on a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) which it expects to issue this fall that will review a range of project-related issues and include input from all relevant federal agencies. After obtaining public comment, it would then issue a final EIS.

Clean Line has applied to partner on the project with DOE and the Southwestern Power Administration (SWPA), a DOE agency that markets power in six south-central states. DOE has deferred a decision until 30 days after a final EIS is issued.

Chief executive Michael Skelly told Recharge last year that Clean Line would rather reach fair and reasonable lease deals with private landowners.  He noted that the project will provide clean, reliable and cost-competitive energy for the TVA region, and only customers that purchase capacity on the line will pay for it. Skelly said he would be “thrilled” if the line can come into commercial operation in 2018.

Plains and Eastern is one of three Clean Line HVDC transmission projects that would bring wind power from the country’s interior to markets east of the Mississippi River. More Wind Belt transmission capacity is needed to support project build-out as the country transitions to cleaner energy sources.

Until now, most grid upgrades have been dedicated to consumers in each particular state, where the grids are typically owned by several large publicly-listed utilities and numerous smaller ones. State regulatory frameworks assure utilities can recover costs for most infrastructure upgrades.