A Houston company is in the early stages of planning one of the largest energy infrastructure projects the Midwest has seen in years - a $1.7 billion high-voltage transmission line connecting Kansas wind farms with consumers in St. Louis and throughout the Ohio River Valley.
The so-called Grain Belt Express transmission line, named to evoke images of train hopper cars rolling across the Plains, would stretch 550 miles from southwestern Kansas to southeastern Missouri. It would be capable of moving 3,500 megawatts of electricity - roughly enough to power 3.5 million homes - to eastern Missouri, Southern Illinois and beyond.
The project is being driven by renewable energy demand, more specifically state mandates that have been approved by voters and legislatures including Missouri and Illinois. The goal in each case is to replace coal-fired power with cleaner energy supplies.
While there is solar energy potential anywhere the sun shines, and renewable fuels such as biomass are getting more traction, wind power is eyed as the renewables workhorse.
"The trick is you've got to move it from windy parts of the country to where the population centers are," said Mark Lawlor, director of development for Clean Line Energy Partners LLC, the company planning the project.
That describes the logic behind the Grain Belt Express line. Western Kansas is among the areas with the nation's best wind energy potential, but development of new projects has stalled somewhat because that area is already awash in wind power.
Developers there are lining up to build new wind farms, representing thousands of megawatts. Projects have been permitted and land has been leased, but work won't go forward without additional transmission infrastructure, he said.
Lawlor said the existing transmission grid lacked capacity to move Kansas wind power to eastern Missouri. A similar challenge faces wind farm developers in Iowa, northern Illinois and elsewhere. Even if capacity was available on existing lines, it would be difficult logistically - the equivalent of driving 500 miles on winding, two-lane country roads.
The answer, according to Clean Line Energy, is a large-scale transmission project, an electron superhighway spanning the better part of two states with no off-ramps between the start and end points.
"We want to do it on a large scale to keep the overall cost of the power at a minimum," Lawlor said.
Besides scale, the key to making the project viable is direct current technology.
The Grain Belt Express line will look much like existing alternating current transmission lines crisscrossing the country, but the planned high-voltage DC line is preferable for moving large amounts of power long distances. Such lines are more efficient, reliable and economical, Lawlor said. They also require narrower rights of way and smaller towers.
Such DC transmission lines are rare, but not new. Twenty already operate in the United States, the company said.
The Grain Belt Express line will originate near Spearville, Kan., and stretch across southern Missouri to a St. Francois County substation, where it will connect with Ameren facilities. A specific route hasn't been chosen. If all goes as planned, construction could begin as soon as 2014 and be complete by 2016, Lawlor said.
Developers have a lot of work to do in the meantime. They need approval from federal and state regulators. Then there's siting and permitting issues and negotiations with land owners, who often object to the installation of infrastructure many consider unsightly.
"We're spending a tremendous amount of time up front to identify a route that has the least impact," Lawlor said.
Clean Line Energy applied in March with the Kansas Corporation Commission to be approved as a public utility in the state. The company is expected to seek permission from the Missouri Public Service Commission next year.
Lawlor said the project would be privately financed and ultimately paid for by utilities, their customers, other wholesale power buyers and renewable energy generators that buy capacity on the line. Rates will be set by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Clean Line Energy would maintain the line, but it would be controlled by a regional grid operator.
Who pays for intrastate transmission projects is frequently a thorny issue. Clean Line Energy seeks to avoid such disputes because only transmission customers will pay for it.
"This is like a toll road," he said. "You don't pay for it if you don't use it."
To help sell the project, Clean Line says the project will be an economic boon for Kansas and Missouri, stimulating $7 billion in new wind power projects and hundreds of permanent jobs in western Kansas and thousands of construction jobs along the entire route, according to a study prepared for the company by St. Louis-based Development Strategies.
Of course, any economic benefit is secondary to the main purpose of the project, to accommodate growing renewable energy demand without breaking the bank.
The Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory said last year in a technical study that the eastern half of the country - an area that's home to 70 percent of the population - could get at least 20 percent of electricity from wind power by 2024, but it would require tens of billions of dollars in new transmission infrastructure.
PENT UP DEMAND
The study underscored the fact that wind development has outpaced transmission infrastructure, prompting new companies to sprout up to help satisfy a backlog of demand. Those companies include independent transmission developers such as Clean Line Energy as well as utilities such as Ameren, which have formed transmission subsidiaries.
Ameren announced last year a $1.3 billion series of transmission projects spanning more than 500 miles in Illinois. The Illinois projects, collectively referred to as the Grand Rivers projects, is aimed at least partly at moving wind power to the east.
"Ameren is working closely with Clean Line Energy to reliably integrate their project into the transmission system," said Maureen Borkowski, CEO of the Ameren subsidiary. "We believe it will mesh well with Ameren Transmission's plans."
Ameren Transmission plans to target Missouri for its next initiative, but nothing has been announced publicly.
Clean Line Energy is owned by Ziff Brothers Investments LLC and Michael Zilkha of Houston, who previously owned Horizon Wind Energy LLC. Several former Horizon executives are part of the company's senior management.
The Grain Belt Express project is one of four long-haul transmission projects the company is developing.