A strong gust of wind energy could blow into northern Illinois within a few years if state regulators authorize a $1.8 billion transmission superhighway linking the Great Plains with one of the largest wholesale electricity markets.
The Illinois Commerce Commission today is scheduled to consider a petition by developer Clean Line Energy Partners LLC to build the Illinois portion of the 500-mile project – one of several key regulatory hurdles the company must achieve before it can lock up customers and financing commitments.
In a proposed order last month, an administrative law judge recommended approving a certificate required to construct the project in Illinois and the developer’s preferred route. But the judge also denied Clean Line’s request under another section of the state Public Utilities Act, finding the transmission line promotes development of a competitive electric market.
Hans Detweiler, who leads development for the Rock Island project, said it’s ambiguous what the order means in terms of the project’s timeline and whether both sections of the utility act are actually necessary to move forward.
Like other long-haul transmission projects planned across the Midwest, Rock Island has raised the ire of farmers and rural landowners concerned about its effect on property values and the aesthetics of a high-voltage wire crossing pastures and fields (EnergyWire, Aug. 13).
Just as notably, the project has also stirred opposition from ComEd, the state’s largest electric utility. The Illinois section of the line would slice through the heart of ComEd’s service territory and potentially pump 15 million megawatt-hours of electricity into northern Illinois and elsewhere in the bulk power grid managed by PJM Interconnection LLC, according to testimony filed with the commission.
A ComEd representative didn’t respond to questions. But in a brief with the Illinois Commerce Commission, the utility argued that the project should be denied public utility status.
Rock Island “has no load customers, no generator subscribers, no financing, and cannot be shown to be least cost,” the Chicago-based utility said in a filing. Developers “will not even commit to build the project, acknowledging it to be a speculative venture that may never leave the drawing board, even if certified.”
Detweiler said the criticism ignores the chicken-and-egg nature of a merchant transmission project.
Wind farm developers and other potential transmission customers won’t sign contracts committing to a billion-dollar transmission line, a condition of financing, until regulatory approvals are granted.
“You need to have an approved route to have an actual cost, and you need to have regulatory approvals to be able to say what date it will be in service,” he said.
Chris Crane, the chief executive of ComEd’s corporate parent, has also told the Chicago Tribune that the company opposes the project.
Paul Adams, an Exelon Corp. spokesman, would not elaborate on the company’s view of the Rock Island project in terms of its effect on power markets. But the company has made no secret that inexpensive wind energy flowing into northern Illinois, along with a surge in natural-gas-fired generation, is suppressing power prices and the profitability of the company’s nuclear fleet.
Exelon’s 2,300-megawatt Byron nuclear plant and 1,815 MW Quad Cities plants in PJM failed to clear PJM’s 2017-18 capacity auction and are among three of the company’s nuclear plants in the state that could be shut down sometime after the middle of next year without a turnaround in their financial performance.
Exelon hasn’t publicly proposed any legislative relief, and Crane has denied the company will seek a “bailout” for its reactors. But Exelon executives continue to lobby for changes to enable nuclear plants to be compensated for the value they provide by producing reliable, low-carbon energy.
Wind across the plains
As proposed, the Rock Island project represents a high-voltage, direct current transmission line that would carry 3,500 MW of mostly wind power from far northwest Iowa across the Mississippi River and 121 miles through Illinois to a substation just southwest of Chicago.
Clean Line said the Rock Island project would enable development of more than 4,000 MW of new wind generation that could be delivered to Illinois and other states with renewable energy standards, and the company is in discussions with 18 wind farm developers in northwest Iowa and the surrounding area that control more than 100,000 acres of land.
Delivery of wind energy to Illinois and PJM would increase generator competition and put downward pressure on wholesale energy prices and prices of renewable energy credits, and therefore ultimately on retail electricity prices and the cost of complying with renewable energy mandates.
A study filed by Clean Line with the Illinois Commerce Commission showed the Rock Island project would reduce wholesale electricity prices in northern Illinois by $320 million just within the first year, Detweiler said.
Even putting aside U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan proposal to slash carbon dioxide emissions, existing Illinois law requires that 25 percent of energy consumed by customers in areas served by investor-owned utilities come from renewable resources by 2025 and that 60 percent of the renewable generation be wind power.
Currently, less than 5 percent of generation delivered to ComEd and Ameren Illinois customers is derived from the sun and wind.
The state’s primary consumer advocate in utility issues, the Citizens Utility Board, didn’t intervene in the Rock Island case. But David Kolata, the group’s executive director, said he favors the proposal and believes the project would help reduce wholesale electricity costs in northern Illinois.
“I don’t think there is any question that it would lower consumers’ costs in Illinois,” he said. “One of the nice things about the proposal is that it’s purely a user pays proposal, meaning that it’s the wind farms themselves that are paying for the building of the line and the costs aren’t socialized across the total consumer user base.”
As a merchant project, Clean Line would recover costs solely from transmission customers.
Federal energy regulators have approved Clean Line’s proposal to pre-subscribe up to 75 percent of transmission capacity to “anchor” customers such as wind generators and purchasers of renewable energy. Remaining capacity would be subscribed through an open season auction.
The project is supported by clean energy groups, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Citizens Utility Board, who say it will deliver not only clean energy to the regional power grid but also needed jobs.
A landowner group and agriculture interests have sought to keep the project from moving ahead by denying Clean Line status to operate as a transmission-owning public utility. Those same groups also seek a hearing on the administrative judge’s proposed order before a final order is issued. That request, too, is before the Illinois Commerce Commission today.
Iowa approval needed
Commission spokeswoman Beth Bosch said it’s not unusual for the commission to call for a hearing before issuing a ruling on a proposed order.
Bosch said the commission isn’t under any statutory deadline for issuing a ruling on the case, and it’s far from a certainty that a decision will come today.
In addition to Illinois, the Rock Island project would need regulatory approval in Iowa.
Detweiler said the company has completed the routing process in the state and held required informational meetings in all 16 counties the project would cross. Clean Line expects to file a formal franchise application with the Iowa Utilities Board by the end of the year.
The Iowa regulatory process should take about a year, and construction on the project, which would take a couple of years, could begin as soon as 2016, he said.
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