TVA is considering a power-line “superhighway” that would zip wind-generated electricity from Oklahoma to Tennessee – providing clean energy equal to about three nuclear reactors.
The Tennessee Valley Authority signed a nonbinding understanding last month to continue exploring the possibility of the 800-mile project that would funnel masses of electricity into the TVA transmission system. TVA could buy the power or send it on to other regions for a fee.
East Tennessee has a few turbines, but winds in western Oklahoma are steadier, stronger and more widespread than here.
Clean Line Energy Partners LLC, of Houston, which has proposed building the line, says wind energy from Oklahoma is cheaper than nuclear power and about equal to natural gas-fired generation.
TVA officials say much is still speculative and costs are unknown. But the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which has pressed TVA toward energy conservation and alternative energy for years, is bullish on the prospects.
“The amount of wind that can be generated in the plains is staggering,” said Stephen Smith, SACE executive director.
“This brings very low cost wind into the Tennessee Valley, with reliability way up. From our perspective, it’s one of the most exciting renewable developments that TVA is contemplating.”
It’s far from a done deal. Wind farms must be built, the transmission line strung and approval received from public service commissions in Arkansas and Tennessee. Oklahoma has already said yes.
Hurdles like these have been overcome in this country in the past, such as when railroads were built, said Jimmy Glotfelty, executive vice president of Clean Line. The 3-year-old company is working on four proposed lines, which require five to 10 years to develop.
“America doesn’t do big projects anymore,” he said. “This would create a lot of jobs and a lot of benefits.
“Renewable energy is so inexpensive now. It is valuable for the energy mix for TVA to keep rates low for years to come.”
This is different
TVA already has contracts in hand to buy about 1,600 megawatts of wind power from a variety of producers, but this is different. It is first and foremost about electricity transmission via an efficient, direct line.
The document signed by Clean Line and TVA last month says the first of two proposed lines would deliver up to 3,500 megawatts of power to the TVA system beginning in late 2016.
A similar understanding signed two years ago has expired, but it resulted in TVA determining that the project was feasible.
The power producer is seeking more electricity through completing a 1,200-megawatt reactor at its Watts Bar Nuclear Plant and a 1,260-megawatt reactor at its Bellefonte plant.
The wind-generated power would be delivered as high-voltage direct current, or HVDC power, in which all the electrons flow in the same direction. It is more powerful than alternating current, called AC power, and the most efficient way to move lots of power over long distances.
AC lines, which lose more electricity during transmission, have been standard in this country. That’s because coal-fired and other power plants were built relatively close to where power was needed. Still, HVDC lines are found in parts of the country and are common around the world.
Clean Line is proposing a dedicated line. Other utilities along the way couldn’t tap in or add on charges as electrons passed down the line. Smith compared the line to driving a superhighway without stop signs and traffic lights.
No decision yet
David Till, TVA transmission strategy general manager, said the public power producer is looking at the proposal with its customers in mind.
“We are committed to study this,” he said. “We are not at the point where we could say if we could take any energy over that line.”
The project is seen as a way to keep TVA’s options open and to be flexible as costs for alternative energy drop.
“At this point, we have met our appetite for wind with the AC system, but that could change,” Till said.
TVA also is watching for changes in the demand for electricity, which has slacked off from predictions in recent years.
Smith said that by coupling the wind energy with natural gas-fired plants, TVA would have around-the-clock power that could be counted on.
Billions on the line
The $3.5 billion proposed transmission system also would involve construction of $12 billion in wind farms in the panhandle area of Oklahoma, including parts of Kansas and Texas.
It’s a chicken-or-egg situation as to which comes first – the transmission lines or farms, Glotfelty said.
A converter that would be required in Memphis, where the electricity is proposed to enter TVA’s system, would put about a $250 million project there, he said.
The board of Memphis, Light, Gas and Water, one of TVA’s distributors, passed a resolution supporting the transmission line’s development.
Towers that would rise 150 feet or more would be placed about every five miles along the route to Tennessee, requiring easements.
“We’ve been out there for two years talking with landowners,” Glotfelty said.