What a $2B Texas project says about U.S. quest for CO2-free grid
After a dozen years, multiple energy crises, regulatory delays and political turnover, construction of a novel 400-mile power line connecting Texas to the Southeast is finally within sight.
The progress is welcome news for clean energy advocates who believe Southern Cross Transmission and similar long-haul projects are critical to a future in which Texas and the U.S. grid move immense amounts of wind and solar energy to decarbonize the nation’s electric infrastructure.
But the $2 billion project, proposed by Pattern Energy Group LP, likely won’t be ready until 2026 at the earliest, if construction starts in 2023.
That means Southern Cross may take about 17 years from conception to completion, a symbol of the long delays that challenge high-voltage power line projects and cast doubts on a carbon-cutting grid transformation sought by President Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress. Even Texas, where state regulators have oversight of transmission line construction, didn’t ensure that Southern Cross could be built quickly. Then blackouts devastated the state in February.
“We had not considered pulling the plug” on Southern Cross, Glen Hodges, vice president of business development at Pattern Energy, told E&E News recently. “We understand that projects of this magnitude — transmission projects — have a very long timeline and you have to have patience, perseverance, capital to support them through that. And so that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Princeton University’s “Net-Zero America” report, based on extensive computer modeling, estimated how much new power line capacity would be needed to meet the Biden goals of a carbon-free grid by 2035 and a near-decarbonized economy with high renewables by midcentury, at the least cost to consumers. High-voltage line capacity would have to leap by 60 percent in just nine years to get on a path to success and triple by midcentury, the study authors reported.
The U.S. has barely left the starting gate toward that future, analysts agree. “With very few exceptions, the United States has not developed large-scale interregional transmission since the [Pacific DC Intertie] between California and the Pacific Northwest was completed 50 years ago,” a report from the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) and Grid Strategies LLC stated.
CEO Bob Blue of Virginia-based Dominion Energy Inc. said there’s a need to permit electric transmission to deliver renewable energy to where people live. “We’re not talking about relaxed standards. We’re just talking about timeliness,” Blue said during a recent Climate Leadership Conference webcast.
The debate is particularly fervent in Texas, which has the most installed wind energy capacity in the nation and solar numbers that are climbing. But experts say it may need projects like Southern Cross as it juggles renewables, electric reliability and the effects of climate change.
Southern Cross, for now, has wind at its back as Texas looks to bolster its main power grid after blackouts during a February freeze.
The direct current line’s capacity to send energy in or out of Texas would help the state import electricity in emergencies. Southern Cross’ capacity — about 2,000 megawatts — would have merely dented the state’s power shortfall at the peak of the February crisis. But the extra power could have kept the lights on for some 400,000 homes and saved electricity customers nearly $1 billion by holding down some of the price spikes during the emergency, according to a report from ACORE and Grid Strategies.
At the same time, the Southeast is home to big energy consumers who may be interested in the renewable energy the project could deliver much of the time. That combination has Pattern Energy exuding confidence that Southern Cross will be built.
The potential development arrives at a crossroads for the U.S. power sector. Regulators and consumers are demanding access to cleaner energy — but also improved reliability and resilience without killing affordability. It’s a tall order for an industry that relies on the blessing of state and federal regulators and often seeks a regulated rate of return. That last part doesn’t apply to Southern Cross, which is a merchant development whose backers will seek to nail down parties willing to pay for the power it plans to transport.