15 march 2019

Electricity Transmission Goes Underground

Dan Gearino, Inside Climate News, March 15, 2019

Mason City, Iowa, would be the starting point for a power line project that may change the way we think of transporting electricity across the country.

The 349-mile line would run from Iowa to the Chicago suburbs, providing the equivalent of a superhighway to move wind energy into East Coast energy markets.

The project, announced on Monday, is called SOO Green Renewable Rail. It is being led by Direct Connect Development Co., a relatively new business that is working with established players, such as Siemens Financial Services and Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners.

The $2.5 billion project would be built underground along the route of existing railroad tracks.

By burying the line, the project aims to avoid one of the biggest obstacles for any electricity transmission project: opposition from people who don’t want to see the line in their community.

“It could set a really big precedent for how we build transmission as we go forward,” said Joshua Rhodes, a research fellow at the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin.

One of the downsides of building underground is high costs. But this project is not much more expensive than what an above-ground power line of similar size would cost, Rhodes said.

“Maybe they can build it this cheaply because they don’t have to fight every farmer and rancher that they need to build this through,” he said.

The developer says this is the first interstate power line project to be built underground. The project takes a cue from fiber-optic cable networks, by burying the lines and building them along the paths of railroad tracks.

Notably, the developers already have the financial commitments they need to make the project happen, according to a spokeswoman.

The next step is to get regulatory approvals. The project needs permits from several federal agencies, along with state regulators in Iowa and Illinois and some local governments.

Since there is no precedent for moving this much power across this much distance underground, the developers will need to show that the cable is safe and has minimal effect on the environment. Direct Connect says this type of cable has a “negligible impact” on its surroundings. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) will require the company to conduct a rigorous environmental assessment of the project to obtain federal permits.

The route connects two grid regions. One is the wind-rich Midwest Independent System Operator region, which covers parts of the Midwest, West and South, including all of Iowa. The other is PJM Interconnection, which covers parts of the Midwest, South and Mid-Atlantic, and is the largest grid region in the country. (Here’s a map of electricity market regions.)

We have seen major above-ground transmission projects go through costly delays or even get canceled because of community opposition. This is a key obstacle in the clean energy transition, because most utility-scale wind and solar is in rural areas and needs to be transported to population centers. The SOO Green plan seeks to bypass this obstacle, or at least go under it.

I will be watching this project and will keep you in the loop as it moves forward.

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