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New transmission lines funnel wind-generated electricity out of Kansas

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, March 22, 2013, at 10:34 p.m.

Kansas can’t become the “Saudi Arabia of wind” – the words of Gov. Sam Brownback – without more giant transmission lines to carry all that wind-generated electricity out of western Kansas.

Like great oil tankers that haul oil from where it is pumped to countries where it is burned, these electrical lines are designed to export wind-generated electricity from lightly populated western Kansas to the more densely populated East.

One project, the V-Plan, which connects western Kansas to Wichita, is now under construction and will add some capacity. But at least two more major transmission lines are in the approval process.

Kansas is among the windiest states, and in 2012 it more than doubled its wind energy capacity to more than 2,000 megawatts. With the extension of the federal production tax credit through 2013, construction on more wind farms will begin this year.

There remains plenty of demand, said Matt Riley, president of Infinity Wind Energy, which has several wind farms in the Dodge City area and would build more if capacity were available.

Twenty-nine states have renewable portfolio standards, which require utilities to acquire a certain percentage of power from renewable sources, but some utilities are falling short of finding those renewable sources. And, Riley said, many coal plants in those areas have become obsolete, creating a future demand gap that could be filled partly by Kansas wind.

Grain Belt Express

The Grain Belt Express, which is being developed by Clean Line Energy Partners Houston, is a direct current line that would connect Spearville, a small town near Dodge City, with a transmission hub in western Indiana. From there, Kansas-generated electricity would flow into the regular electrical grid for consumption in homes and factories in Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.

A direct current line is something rare and different from the regular electrical grid, which carries alternating current.

The practical difference is that DC is more expensive than AC for short distances, but much cheaper for long distances. It’s rare because most electricity is AC power generated in coal, gas or nuclear plants relatively close to where the population consumes it. But in a few instances there are concentrated power sources that seek to export. For instance, there is a large DC line that carries hydroelectric power from the Pacific Northwest to southern California.

The 700-mile long Grain Belt Express would carry up to 3,500 megawatts of wind-generated electricity and cost $2 billion to build. The potential route runs northeast from Spearville to Washington, Kan., and then east into Missouri.

The company estimates the line will attract $7 billion in wind farms and electrical infrastructure investment in western Kansas. The line and the new wind farms would create 5,000 short-term construction jobs and 500 operations jobs, most of them in Kansas, according to the company.

Something different

The project would be different from a typical transmission line in another way: It wouldn’t cost the taxpayers or ratepayers of Kansas anything. It would be fully funded by investors, who would make their money back from the ratepayers in Indiana, Ohio and other states, according to the company.

Once the approvals and the routing are completed, finding the money won’t be hard, said Mark Lawlor, director of development for Clean Line Energy. Once Eastern and Midwestern utilities sign contracts to buy the wind power, finding money to build wind farms and transmission lines won’t be hard because investors are looking for solid long-term returns.

“That’s the easy part,” he said. “I used to be a wind farm developer. You would be amazed at the potential out there.”

It would be a terrific project for Kansas, agreed Riley, the wind farm developer.

“You get all the economic development benefits without any of the costs,” Riley said.

The Grain Belt Express was approved as a utility by the Kansas Corporation Commission in late 2011.The company is now in the process of determining the exact route and getting approval in Indiana.

Clean Line is also pushing three other DC lines, one of which, the Plains and Eastern, begins in the Oklahoma Panhandle and heads 700 miles straight east to Tennessee. It also would carry 3,500 megawatts of electricity.

A third would run 500 miles from western Iowa to the Chicago area. And another would run 900 miles from New Mexico to southern California.

ITC expansion

A second proposal, the ITC Great Plains Extension, is a series of five, 345-kilovolt AC lines running from the western edge of the Great Plains 400 to 500 miles east into Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas. Two of the lines would run from western or central Kansas east. These lines would part of the regular grid.

ITC Great Plains, a transmission line company based in Topeka, is a subsidiary of Michigan-based ITC Holdings. It is building half of the V-Plan line.

Last week, ITC Great Plains announced it had won approval for its plan to build a transmission line from the Elm Creek to Summit stations in Kansas. The approval from the Southwest Power Pool, the organization that oversees regional power line planning, should improve the reliability of service in central Kansas, according to ITC.

Its cost will be spread among member utilities, including Westar, and then to their ratepayers.

Alan Myers, manager for ITC Great Plains, said ITC wasn’t opposed to the Grain Belt Project because the two are so different.

“They’re really apples and oranges,” he said. “We are not focused solely on wind energy. We are generation neutral. We do create the capacity that could be used by wind generation, but it could take other energy as well. Theirs is more point-to-point; ours is a network approach.”

It is also difficult to say how much additional capacity would be created by the extensions lines, because it really increases the capacity of the overall grid rather than in any one spot.

Reach Dan Voorhis at 316-268-6577 or dvoorhis@wichitaeagle.com.

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