Clean Line, GE to Partner on Transmission Project

Clean Line, GE to Partner on Transmission Project

Clean Line Energy Partners announced Tuesday that GE Energy Connections will supply three high-voltage direct-current converter stations for a $2.5 billion project to transmit wind power from Oklahoma across the width of north-central Arkansas.

The project, known as the Plains and Eastern Clean Line, is billed as the largest wind energy project in the country and the first major overhead direct-current effort in the United States in decades. It promises to deliver 4,000 megawatts of power generated by wind turbine farms in the Oklahoma panhandle over a 720-mile high-line system to a terminal near Memphis.

There was no dollar figure associated with Tuesday's announcement, but the companies said construction could begin as early as the second half of 2017.

Clean Line Partners, based in Houston, Texas, selected GE as exclusive provider of the converter stations, including one in Pope County. The other converter stations will be in Texas County, Oklahoma, and Shelby County, Tennessee. Clean Line officials said its full investment in Pope County would be about $100 million.

The stations will convert direct-current power to alternating current to be delivered to customers through the existing AC grid.

In March, the federal Department of Energy approved the Clean Line transmission project, which had been rejected by the Arkansas Public Service Commission in 2011, allowing it to move forward under provisions of the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Opponents, who fear environmental damage in and eroded property values in the 12 Arkansas counties crossed by the line, criticize the DOE's involvement, claiming federal overreach, and question its access to government eminent-domain powers. The entire Arkansas congressional delegation in Washington — made up exclusively of Republicans — has spoken out against the project for those reasons, and a lawsuit challenging the project has been filed by landowner groups has been lodged in federal court in Jonesboro.

GE, for its part, hailed the project as its first HVDC project in the country since acquiring Alstom Energy in 2015. It described direct current transmission as "the most efficient means of connecting wind generation to distant end-use customers."

"We are pleased to partner with Clean Line Energy on this transformational clean energy project," Russell Stokes, CEO of GE Energy Connections, said in a news release. He added that the collaboration would "pave the way for substantial growth in the U.S. renewable energy industry."

Michael Skelly, president of Clean Line Energy Partners, praised GE's role in modernizing the nation's electric grid. 

"They have been at the forefront of many of our nation's largest infrastructure projects and will ensure that leading technology will be used to provide affordable, clean energy to the Mid-South and Southeast," he said.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin praised the deal in a statement to the Tulsa World, describing GE as "the world's premier digital industrial company" working with Clean Line "on a transmission line that will harness and export Oklahoma's great wind resource." Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, while acknowledging political opposition, conceded last month that the state was likely to see benefits from the Clean Line project. 

The Pope County converter station would provide 500 megawatts, or one-eighth of the Clean Line's capacity, to consumers in Arkansas, enough to power 160,000 homes. The full project, according to Clean Line officials, would pump $660 million into the state over 30 months of construction and deliver enough power for more than 1.1 million homes. In addition, Arkansas counties would reap up to $147 million in tax payments over 40 years and landowners would receive $30 million for easements and payments for transmission structures on their property.

Manufacturing facilities in Malvern and West Memphis have contracts worth tens of millions of dollars for supplying cable and glass insulators for the power line.

Critics dispute the numbers, claiming that the project's developers have inflated them, and note that their environmental concerns are reflected in an April 2015 letter from the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism citing "several apparent, immediate and dire conflicts" the project would pose to outdoor recreation in the state. The comments fell short of total opposition to the Clean Line, but it listed worries about the impact of the line crossing the Mulberry River, Big Piney Creek, the Little Red River, bayou wildlife management areas and scenic areas generally.

Supporters point out that the DOE cleared the project after an intensive environmental-impact review.

Clean Line executives also point to the overall environmental benefits of wind power as opposed to coal-generated power. They also point to support from environmental groups such as the Sierra Club. Skelly and Clean Line Vice President Mario Hurtado have estimated that the line could provide wholesale energy for about four cents per kilowatt-hour, a "very competitive" price.

The average price of electricity to Arkansas residential customers was 10.38 cents per kilowatt hour in August, ranking it among the least expensive states for consumers, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The U.S. average was 12.9 cents.

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