The chairman of a key Senate energy subcommittee wants the Department of Energy to withhold its approval of a construction path for a $2 billion transmission line that would bring wind power from the plains of Texas and Oklahoma into the hills of the Tennessee Valley.
In a letter sent to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on Thursday, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander questioned the need for and the value of a 700-mile, direct-current transmission route that Clean Line Energy Partners LLC is proposing to build through Arkansas.
"The project proposes to fill a need that is not present at this time and could force a comparatively expensive source of energy on Southeastern utilities that don't need the additional generation," Alexander said in his letter to DOE. "While the states of Tennessee and Oklahoma have approved the project, Arkansas continues to oppose the project. The use of federal eminent domain would strip Arkansas of their traditional property rights."
Clean Line wants to erect a 700-mile high-voltage, direct-current line to carry wind-generated power from Oklahoma and the panhandle of Texas to Memphis, where power could then be distributed along TVA transmission lines for TVA and other Southeastern utilities.
Because Arkansas regulators balked at granting state utility status for the privately owned line, Clean Line is trying to team up with the Southwestern Power Administration in a public-private partnership that would be allowed to build transmission lines through Arkansas. The agreement must still be approved by the U.S. Department of Energy, which has extended the period for public comments on such a partnership.
* August, 2015 - TVA adopts a long-range power plant that outlines its need for power from Clean Line and other sources
* December, 2015 - Public comment ends for environmental assessment of 700-mile transmission line, DOE to issue final report
* January 2016 - DOE decides on request for Clean Line to join with Southwestern Power Administration for utility status to build line through Arkansas
DOE also is still taking comments on its environmental assessment of the project, although a draft plan released in December didn't identify any major significant environmental problems.
Mario Hurtado, co-founder and executive vice president of development of Clean Line Energy, said the developers continue to work with DOE, the Tennessee Valley Authority and state and federal regulators over their proposed project, which was originally conceived more than five years ago. Hurtado said the direct-current line could deliver renewable and clean energy to the Southeast for about 4 to 6 cents per kilowatthour, "which is a very competitive rate."
"With the production tax credit for wind, power could be produced in this area for about 2 cents per kwh and it would cost another 2 cents or so per kwh to transmit and deliver the power to TVA," he said. "TVA needs to do what makes economic and environmental sense and we believe our project addresses that need."
Hurtado said he is encouraged by the support he has received from TVA, even though a long-term power plan drafted by TVA power planners doesn't foresee any immediate need to build the new line.
"We spend a lot of time talking with people in Tennessee and other states and what they tell us is that having more renewable energy options at an affordable cost is a good thing," he said. "This is an important economic development project, especially for west Tennessee. We know there are a lot of processes to go through and we're not there yet, but we think this project will deliver a long term and sustainable value for TVA and the region."
But Alexander said wind energy is being propped up by expensive federal tax credits, which if eliminated will make the wind project too expensive for TVA. Wind mills operate only 35 percent of time, Alexander said, and only federal subsidies make wind at all cost competitive.
"The subsidy to Big Wind is so generous that in some markets, wind producers can literally give their electricity away and still make a profit," Alexander said. " This phenomenon is called "negative pricing," and it has the effect of making baseload power plants, like nuclear plants, less competitive and more likely to close."
Clean Line Energy says winds are stronger in Oklahoma and Texas than in most of America and the capacity factor for wind turbines for Clean Line should be nearly double the figures quoted by Alexander.
Alexander also questioned the reliability of relying upon wind from Oklahoma and Arkansas, which average more than 100 tornadoes per year.
"A single tornado could take down part of transmission line, cutting off the wind farms from TVA," Alexander said. "The proposed path of the project makes an inherently unreliable source of energy even more unreliable."