Special Series: Primer on Renewable Energy and Transmission

Writer Loren Flaugh, a longtime friend of the Center, is uniquely interested in energy. Living in Central Iowa, a region heavily committed to renewables, he’s had no shortage of inspiration. Loren enjoys a front-row seat as his region reaps the benefits of renewable energy investment.

It wasn’t long ago that he realized most of these benefits – clean air, low rates, and local economic development – depend on infrastructure that moves that energy from where it’s produced to where it’s needed most.

That’s when Loren became focused on clean energy transmission. Earlier this year Loren gave a talk at Iowa State University, walking students and faculty along the path he took to understanding the role transmission plays in helping our small towns grow.

Over the next year we will publish portions of his talk. Our hope is that Loren can take you down that same path, illustrating why we remain committed to a greener grid. Let me know how you enjoy this special series, beginning below! – Johnathan Hladik, johnathanh@cfra.org

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It was late in 2011 when I first became keenly aware of just how many high voltage transmission infrastructure projects were being proposed. In retrospect, my inquisitive curiosity for wind energy sprouted five years earlier.

My learning curve regarding both industries quickened when Clean Line Energy Partners came to Paullina in the spring of 2011 to explain their proposed high voltage direct current (HVDC) wind energy transmission project from O’Brien County to a 765 kV substation near Morris, Illinois. A map they provided showed their initial study corridor.

Clean Line must rely on wind developers to build wind farms and ship wind energy on the 3,500 MW HVDC power line. Once delivered, they’re equally dependent on utilities to buy that energy.

When I fully grasped how Clean Line’s innovative business model was intended to work, I immediately compared theirs to one I routinely dealt with in the 1980s when I worked in the pipeline industry. In my view, Clean Line is a common carrier high voltage DC wind energy transmission line. It’s a business model that’s worked well in the pipeline industry for decades, and I don’t see why it can’t work well in the electric transmission industry, too. However, efficiently moving this much bulk power into the wider distribution network might evolve into an unexpected problem to solve.

I set about conducting an informal survey among landowners at the O’Brien County Fair two months later. I set up shop under a shade tree and waited for landowners to come to me. My survey question was: Are you basically supportive, unsupportive, or unsure about the Rock Island HVDC power line project to Illinois?

Over those three days, I probably chatted up over 40 fairgoers about that project and wind energy development in general. My survey showed that 69 percent supported the power line project, 13 percent were unsupportive, and 17 percent were simply not sure. Several held unfavorable views towards wind energy.

I discovered a unique learning tool when I began studying Clean Line’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) application. After reading and rereading the complicated material, I was addicted. I can recall the local economic development director telling me, “You must be the only newspaper reporter in Iowa that relishes studying MISO long-range transmission expansion project spreadsheets.”

I realized that far more HVDC and HVAC power line expansion projects were in the offing than what I initially believed. Through FERC documents, I sensed something called MISO was an integral part of the high voltage grid. What’s MISO, I mused?

MISO, also known as the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, manages the transmission grid throughout the Midwest region and into Canada. Spending time on their website and looking at their yearly reports led me to become aware that the upper Midwest seemed to be targeted for a historic 10-year build out of high voltage AC transmission expansion and upgrade projects estimated at a $5.5 billion cost. They called this initiative their Multi-Value Portfolio (MVP) of 17 transmission expansion projects.

Website maps showed where about 6,500 miles of new power line would be located or upgraded. What was fascinating was to see these maps showing route configurations change from one yearly project report to the next. With each iteration, these proposed routes seemed to become even more practical. All this information that I seemed to absorb caused me to wonder just what the ordinary farmer/landowner knew about MISO and how MISO can impact farming operations.

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Be sure to read our next installment to find out what Loren did next. “I decided to conduct my own unscientific experiment. At noon one day I walked to the local Cenex gas station/convenience store (the local farmer’s hideout) armed with but one simple question.”