Dave Ulery was set to build his “forever home” on his family’s 26-acre property near the Ozark mountain foothills in Arkansas when a knock on the door heralded trouble.
The visitor represented Clean Line Energy Partners LLC, a Texas company established to build transmission lines for carrying wind and solar power. He had come to tell Ulery about a planned line that would cut through the untouched woods of pine and oak trees on his property, bringing power generated by wind farms 500 miles to the west, to serve customers 250 miles to the east.
The news “put us in limbo,” said Ulery, a 34-year-old construction business owner who since that day has been a vocal opponent of Clean Energy’s proposed power corridor. “We’re not going to build a property where we’re going to be 100 feet from a transmission line.”
Battles over the placement of power lines are an emerging problem for the U.S. clean energy industry, which casts itself as a friend of the environment but suddenly finds itself vilified by landowners.
Already this year, regulators in Missouri blocked another Clean Line proposal, this one to link Kansas wind with customers in Indiana. The state’s Public Service Commission ruled the project was not needed to meet its renewable energy goals, and noted that most of the 7,200 comments it had received from the public opposed the line.
Wherever it occurs, the resistance poses a challenge to the clean energy industry: how to get power generated in blustery or sunny places to faraway consumers who need it.
It also puts environmental activists on an unfamiliar side of the barricades. The same groups that fiercely opposed the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have brought heavy oil from Alberta to U.S. refineries, now find themselves pushing plans to string power wires along a phalanx of 200-foot-high towers.
“Climate change has changed everyone’s perspective toward electricity transmission,” said Carl Zichella, who works on transmission issues for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “There is no way to do a transition this enormous without some environmental impacts.”
President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan aims for the United States to source 28 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2030, an aggressive goal that will require vast amounts of new transmission. In a March report by the Edison Electric Institute, the utility trade group found that 46 percent of $47.9 billion of U.S. transmission projects planned through 2025 are intended to support renewable energy resources.
“It’s very much in line with what we believe this administration is trying to accomplish,” Michael Skelly, Clean Line’s president, said of his company’s building plans.
Clean Line is seeking approval for a $2.2 billion Plains & Eastern transmission line to run more than 700 miles from Oklahoma to Tennessee. Other proposed links include the Anschutz Corporation’s application to build a 730-mile, $3 billion line called the TransWest Express from Wyoming to Las Vegas.
Both lines are aimed at carrying wind power to population centers. Federal agencies are expected to hand down decisions as soon as the end of 2015.
The rise of interstate transmission lines is a major shift from the days when most power lines were planned by a local utility to carry electricity within a state — yet regulatory approval mostly still lies with individual states instead of with the federal government.
One solution might be to use the federal government’s eminent domain authority. Clean Line is trying to do just that by seeking approval for its Plains & Eastern line under an untested federal law that enables the Department of Energy to partner with private business on transmission.
The law was passed in 2005, a few years after the California energy crisis and Northeast blackout raised serious concerns about the reliability of the nation’s power grid.
If the DOE agrees to partner with Clean Line on the Plains & Eastern line, the company could try once again to get a permit to build the Grain Belt Express line that was rejected in Missouri. Clean Line is backed by British power company National Grid, Ziff Brothers Investments, the wealthy Zilkha family and privately held oil and gas company Bluescape Resources.
Unlike the Keystone XL case, developers of clean transmission lines often have big environmental groups on their side.
The Sierra Club supported Clean Line’s line application in Missouri, citing the fact that the state still gets more than 80 percent of its electricity from coal, according to John Hickey, director of the Club’s chapter there.
“Typically we fight transmission lines,” Hickey said, adding that Clean Line had planned its route in a way that avoided the worst environmental impacts. “We need to move away from coal and Grain Belt Express provides a way to do that.”
The Sierra Club also the supports a Clean Line effort in Arkansas’ Pope County, where last year the group tried to block Plains All American Pipeline LP’s Diamond oil pipeline.
“I worked really closely with the Sierra Club on the pipeline issue, but on this issue we are at absolute odds,” said Alison Millsaps, an artist who lives with her husband and three children on an 80-acre property in Pope County.
Millsaps, 37, supports development of clean energy but can’t stomach the idea of transmission towers cutting off the top half of a property that has already given up space for a gas pipeline, local power lines and a road. She has organized community opposition to the line through an active Facebook page and blog.
“Landowners are the only ones who are actually being asked to sacrifice,” Millsaps said.
It is a sacrifice that many expect will be asked increasingly of landowners as states seek to meet their green power goals.
“How do you build the grid so that renewable energy can play a meaningful role for all the utilities in the country, not just those that sit on top of good wind resource?” Clean Line’s Skelly asked.
“You need long distance power lines to do that.”