May 7, 2011

Wind power superhighway may cross Linn

by Dave DeWitte/SourceMedia Group News 7 May 2011

Iowa’s wind energy backers have for years discussed the need for more long-distance transmission lines – green energy superhighways that would take wind energy from the plains states to major markets on the east or west coasts.

As a Texas company makes plans for one of the first such projects, it will test the willingness of Iowans in Linn County and elsewhere to accomodate the needs of a green economy.

Clean Line Energy Partners of Houston has begun meeting with community leaders about the Linn County portion of its Rock Island Clean Line. The proposed 500-mile high voltage line would take power from wind farms in Northwest Iowa and nearby areas of surrounding states to a point 50 miles south of Chicago. There, the line would interconnect with existing transmission lines that feed power to markets in the Eastern United States.

It’s a $1.7 billion project that would bring Iowa’s first long-distance transmission line using direct current, as opposed to the alternating current used on most transmission lines. The direct current lines lose significantly less power in transmission across long distances, a phenomenon known as “line loss.” But to work, the DC transmission line will require power converters at each end costing about $250 million each, according to Clean Line Energy Partners.

Because of the high cost of the converters, the 600 kilovolt line won’t have any “off-ramps” in Iowa. It will be an interstate power highway with no interchanges, shipping energy across and out of the state.

Still, Clean Line officials say, the project offers huge economic benefits for the state that offset the anxieties about property values, visual degradation and health effects that transmission lines usually engender.

Without new transmission lines, development of more wind energy in Iowa will be choked off by a lack of markets, said Hans Detweiler, director of development for Clean Line Energy Partners. He says the line will open the door for roughly 3,500 megawatts of additional wind power in Iowa, about double what exists currently.

The additional wind farms could generate $7 billion in new investment, Detweiler said, much of which would flow to Iowa wind power manufacturers such as Clipper Windpower in Cedar Rapids, Acciona Wind Power in West Branch, and Trinity Structural Towers in Newton.

“The project will really lift up the demand for those companies,” Detweiler said. Wind power producers in Iowa so far haven’t been able to access the “REC” market or renewable energy credit market in the states east of Illinois, Detweiler said, because they could not transmit to the region’s transmission system operator, called PJM.

Clean Line Energy this week released the proposed corridors from which the transmission routes will be chosen, after more than a year of meeting with state and local officials. A June 13 meeting at Central City High School’s cafeteria will be the first chance for members of the public to meet with company officials and express their views on the project.

Some area leaders began meeting with Green Line Energy Partners last year. Linn County Supervisor Brent Oleson and former supervisor Jim Hauser met with the company last fall. Iowa Sierra Club Energy Chair Pamela Mackey Taylor met with the company this spring.

Oleson said he’s neutral at this point about the project because he doesn’t know enough specifics, but accepts the rationale that such projects are needed.

“I totally get that this is the way things have to go to take care of our basket of energy needs and have a basket to draw from,” Oleson said. Coping with climate challenges will require a diversity of power sources, Oleson said, including wind, nuclear, solar and others.

Taylor of the Iowa Sierra Club expressed concerns to Clean Line about the effects of the lines and towers on migratory birds, which she said are often killed when they fly into the lines and towers. She said it’s important to keep the lines as far as possible from migratory routes and sensitive natural areas that serve as wildlife habitat.

Taylor was also concerned that the line will only take green energy out of Iowa. Although she understands the value of the DC transmission technology, she said it’s disappointing that the power moving over the line will all go elsewhere.

Taylor said she appreciates the fact that Clean Line Energy’s project team is taking time to hear environmental concerns. Clean Line Project Development Manager Cary Kottler said the company decided after meeting early with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to try to avoid river valleys and other sensitive natural areas. He said DNR made it clear that natural lands are much scarcer in Iowa than in other states, and need protection.

The Iowa Utilities Board controls the process by which the transmission route must be approved in Iowa. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission controls it at the federal level. Iowa Farm Bureau spokeswoman Laurie Johns said the farm bureau encourages landowners to engage in public input and negotiation processes prescribed by the utilities board, which provide them with some protections.

Clean Line Energy “is committed to an open process” of route selection, Detweiler said, in which ideas are shared by the company, landowners and other stakeholders. The company originally had hoped to develop the line along right-of-way the east-west Iowa Northern Railway line that was once part of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific railroad. Clean Line decided after input from the mayors of towns along the railroad route that it was not suitable because the lines would have had to detour around virtually every town.

Des Moines-based MidAmerican Energy is involved through joint venture in transmission projects in Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma using a different transmission technology, 765 kilovolt extra high voltage lines, mainly to serve wind farms.

Regional transmission provider ITC Holdings, the parent company of Cedar Rapids-based ITC Midwest, is also involved in transmission capacity expansion projects in Oklahoma and Kansas that will provide capacity for wind farms.

Doug Collins, president of Cedar Rapids-based ITC Midwest, recently discussed the transmission limitations with SourceMedia. He said giant wind turbines in Iowa are often taken off-line during high wind conditions because of a lack of transmission capacity to get the power to market.

Detweiler says the company plans to use a monopole design for its towers. Each tower would consist of one massive pole, resulting in a smaller land footprint than more traditional transmission towers with two or even more legs. Each tower would carry two bundles of three wires each, and they would be spaced 1,000 to 1,500 feet apart.

Landowners would receive negotiated lease payments, Detweiler said, and the local government would receive payments of $7,000 per mile each year as a property tax replacement.

After holding 26 open house meetings across Iowa in June, the company plans to have more informational meetings in the fall. It plans to file a route with the utilities board in the first three months of 2012, and then spend about 18 months obtaining financing and acquiring land before beginning construction.

Concerns about health effects of electromagnetic fields surrounding transmission lines are unjustified, according to Kottler. He said studies have produced no evidence of harmful health effects, and the strength of electromagnetic fields at the boundaries of the 150-200-foot-wide transmission right of way will be about the same as natural levels. Electromagnetic fields around direct current lines are distributed differently than around alternating current lines, Kottler said.

The Sierra Club’s Taylor said she doesn’t think it wise to take the transmission line developer’s word on health effects.

Health effects “need to be part of the discussion,” Taylor said.

Clean Line Energy Partners is owned by the Sikha family of Houston and ZAM Ventures LP, a unit of New York-based Ziff Brothers Investments, according to the company’s web site.

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