Midwest transmission morass: A 100% clean power warning?
A first-of-its-kind transmission line proposed to help move Midwest wind energy east to the nation’s largest electricity market was designed to avoid pitfalls that dog similar projects.
Instead of building a network of steel lattice towers and overhead wires, developers behind the 350-mile Soo Green HVDC Link would bury underground a pair of cylindrical cables about the diameter of wine bottles.
The route would mostly follow an existing Canadian Pacific Railway corridor from Mason City, Iowa, to just west of Chicago, avoiding eminent domain battles with landowners. The project, which is partially backed by Siemens AG, will be capable of moving 2,100 megawatts of electricity, enough to light about 2 million homes.
Soo Green’s backers initially saw potential to complete the project quickly — within four years of when it was announced in 2019 (Energywire, March 12, 2019). That’s blinding speed for the type of major infrastructure project where siting and permitting lines can be a decadelong slog.
Instead, developers now find themselves bogged down in a different delay, stuck in line behind hundreds of smaller-scale electric generation projects for clearance to plug into the PJM Interconnection LLC grid. It’s a delay that will push back the start of construction by at least a year.
“It’s going to take PJM longer to study Soo Green’s interconnection than it’s going to take us to build this $2.5 billion project,” said Joe DeVito, president of developer Direct Connect Development Co. “If not for the PJM interconnection delays, we would have been putting shovels in the ground later this year.”
While Soo Green’s circumstances are unique, the challenges of building interregional transmission projects — the kind viewed as a necessary backbone for a zero-carbon grid — are not. Elsewhere, aboveground transmission lines face political and landowner opposition related to siting. As the Biden administration forges ahead with plans to zero out electricity-sector carbon emissions by 2035, siting transmission lines and renewable energy projects is emerging as a big hurdle (Energywire, March 24).
In Soo Green’s case, the physical design of the project has nothing to do with challenges that its developers face. Rather, it’s their business model — something they view as a plus — that’s inadvertently slowed things down.
Unlike most transmission projects in PJM that evolve from a centralized planning process, Soo Green is a so-called merchant project with rates that are competitively bid and avoid divisive fights over how costs are shared among utilities.
The classification means the project goes through a different interconnection study process at PJM, one where it’s lumped in with hundreds of proposed generation projects being developed in the region that spans 13 Midwestern and mid-Atlantic states and the District of Columbia. Through the process, PJM engineers study the impact to the existing bulk electrical system and identify any upgrades needed to maintain reliability.
“This is a very large project and, as a result, the potential upgrades may be extensive and PJM will properly study and reinforce the system to ensure reliability to the overall system,” Susan Buehler, a spokeswoman for PJM, said in an email.