Approval of New High-Voltage Merchant Clean Power Transmission Line Through Arkansas Still Stalled

Oct 30, 2017
Originally published on October 31, 2017 9:19 am

Clean Line Energy Partners, headquartered in Houston, Texas intends to build five long-haul, high-voltage clean power transmission lines across at least 10 states. 

Together, the “Clean Lines” could transport more than 15,000 megawatts of new industrial wind energy generated in Kansas, Iowa, Texas and Oklahoma to utility markets across the eastern half of the U.S. 

But progress along all the clean lines, including a controversial route through Arkansas, remains tangled by opposition.

The proposed clean lines carry old-fashioned American names like Grain Belt Express, Western Spirit, and the Plains & Eastern, because, says Clean Line Energy Partners spokesperson Mario Hurtado, his company intends to build a new electrical frontier to accommodate a surge of new wind energy just over the horizon.

“The best wind resources are in the middle of the country starting in the Great Plains and going north,” Hurtado says,  “a spine of incredibly strong resources just east of the Rocky Mountains. But most population centers are east or west. All of the smart engineers and people who study the grid have said the future grid is one that will have a lot more renewable energy. And in order to best serve Americans you really need to have lines that connect the very best resources to those larger populations that are distant.”

Instead of building alternating current transmission facilities, Clean Line Energy Partners has designed a high- voltage, direct-current transmission system which will efficiently move bulk clean power quickly across the country in one direction. HVDC lines experience less loss than AC lines over extremely long distances. 

For example, the 700-mile long, $2 billion dollar Plains & Eastern Clean Line will transport 3500 megawatts of wind power from far western Oklahoma across north Arkansas to the Tennessee Valley Authority, along the way dropping off 500 MW of power at proposed substation near Conway. TVA, several years ago, signed a memorandum of understanding with Clean Line Energy Partners, but no purchase contract has been formalized. 

Hurtado would not identify any other customers interested in purchasing power delivered by the merchant southern clean line, but the firm, he says, has secured more than half the required easements along the Oklahoma and Arkansas route, which crosses Dave Ulery’s rural Pope County place. Ulery, however, is refusing to grant easement. 

“It’s a monstrosity,” he says. “They will clear cut a 200- foot wide swath across the state of Arkansas encumbering over 8,000 acres of property to erect 200-foot tall steel lattice structures across the entire state.”

When the Arkansas Public Service Commission early on rejected an application by Clean Line Energy Partners to build the Plains & Eastern Clean Line project, the company decided to apply for a novel U.S. Department of Energy Section 1222 permit, the first like it to be approved in 2015. But Ulery warns that permit gives the private firm federal authority to take private property.

“If landowners do not sign over an easement voluntarily,” he says, “there’s a good chance they will be taken to federal court and their property will be condemned under federal eminent domain law.”

Ulery is spokesperson for Golden Bridge LLC, one of two landholder groups in Arkansas who’ve filed suit in federal district court to stop the project. A hearing is scheduled November 14th.  Other Clean Line routes are being blocked as well by state public service commissions and lawsuits. 

“Historically, transmission siting has been a province of the state,” Ulery says, “and we just don’t think this process has been adequate for landowners' due process.”

The proposed Plains & Eastern Clean Line happens to cut through every congressional district in Arkansas, which prompted the state’s congressional delegation to meet in September with U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, demanding a review of the Section 1222 permit. U.S. Republican Sen. John Boozman says that Perry was receptive. 

“We’ve got so many power lines, so many pipelines, and we need these things,” Boozman says, “but each one has been built working with the states, working with the local landowners. And this is just not a good situation for the state of Arkansas or a precedent to set for the rest of the country.”

The delegation has also filed matching federal bills to stop the clean line in Arkansas. The “Assuring Private Property Rights Over Vast Access to Land" or APPROVAL Act would require Section 1222 projects like the Plains & Eastern Clean Line to be built on public, rather than private property, and to obtain approval by state governors and regulators.

Clean Line Energy Partners is powering forward nonetheless with pre-construction planning, and expects to start building the line next year, says Hurtado. He points to how his firm succeeded in securing the nation's first federally permitted transmission line project. 

"The permitting process took into account literally thousands of comments, and many adjustments were made to satisfy property owners," Hurtado says. "We are obligated, as Clean Line moves forward, to work with land owners and stakeholders to be able to be the best project in those counties. We are confident in the review process that the DOE has taken, and we are working hard to make the project happen."

Failing states’ regulatory approval on the other four Clean Lines, questions remain on if Clean Line Energy Partners will seek federal Section 1222 authority to take private property along those routes as well.

Mario Hurtado declined comment, but in an email, the company says all options are on the table.

If construction on the Plains & Eastern Clean Line proceeds, the project could add more than $660 million dollars to Arkansas’s economy, according to a 2015 University of Arkansas study conducted by the Center for Business and Economic Research, generating nearly 900 jobs.

This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.

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