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Judging a Clean Line Book by Its Hero and Antagonist

4 min read

If you think history is written by the victors, consider the counterintuitive case of Michael Skelly and Clean Line Partners.

A new book by Russell Gold, senior energy reporter for The Wall Street Journal, makes Skelly its hero. A champion of wind power, Skelly dominates “Superpower: One Man’s Quest to Transform American Energy.”

The bid by his Houston-based company to build a huge transmission line for solar and wind power across mid-America is cast as visionary and environmentally heroic, a $2.5 billion project torpedoed by not-in-my-backyard critics, fossil fuel last-standers and politics.

As reviewer Trey Shipp put it, Skelly is the “driven entrepreneur with a huge goal: building thousands of miles of transmission lines to carry cheap, renewable energy across several states to where it’s needed. … Raising money was the easy part. Convincing landowners, state governments and utility commissions” would be Skelly’s test.

And ultimately his failure.

The book’s view of American electric power since Thomas Edison’s time fascinated Arkansan Julie Morton, a prime critic of Clean Line’s Plains & Eastern project, which would have cut across Oklahoma and Arkansas, carrying western wind power to the Tennessee Valley Authority.

But to her, Skelly’s no hero and Clean Line was never a good idea.

“I didn’t object to how I was presented in the book,” Morton told Arkansas Business. “The opposition was all about the land [and landowners’ right to challenge eminent domain]. But I do have trouble with the second half, and I’m not even sure it should be called nonfiction.”

The author fell victim to what Morton calls the “Skelly spin,” in which Clean Line’s representatives are kind and caring, eager to help landowners, she said. “They must have been Jekyll and Hyde, because they were actually condescending Ivy Leaguers who thought they were the smartest people in the room.”

Arkansas Business won “best scoop” at the Alliance of Area Business Journals’ annual awards last month in Atlanta for its report on Clean Line’s demise, coverage that Gold said he had followed. The Plains & Eastern Line faced early opposition by the Arkansas Public Service Commission and years of withering fire from Arkansans in Congress. All six opposed the project, which a University of Arkansas study said would bring $600 million to Arkansas’ economy. Wary landowners in the transmission line’s path also sued, contesting the project’s eminent domain powers.

“So many people in our grassroots movement called legislators,” Morton said. “So many that they asked us to stop calling. That made a difference, and our delegation made a difference. They’re made into villains in the book, but actually, for once, they listened to the people, not the billionaires, and did their job.”

The project was scrapped after the TVA rejected buying the wind power, but that was just the last nail among many blows, including the rise of President Donald Trump. The Obama White House had promoted renewable energy, but Trump’s team doggedly backs coal and petroleum, and it came as no shock that the U.S. Department of Energy reversed its support for Clean Line last year.

“It wasn’t really about being green,” Morton said. “It was all about money, and Skelly admitted as much to Mr. Gold.”

Gold, who also wrote “The Boom,” an invaluable look at the rise of fracking, told Arkansas Business that “Superpower” has done well, but “it’s an odd time to publish a book. There’s a lot to be outraged about in there, but it is so hard to compete with other daily outrages that riffle through Twitter and our national discourse.”

He said Clean Line’s final offer to the TVA, at $18.50 per megawatt-hour, was “an unbelievable low price.” The agency is now seeking proposals for wind power at $40 per megawatt-hour. “Why would they be seeking wind right now at $40 when they rejected it at half that price years ago?”

Gold sees bigger lessons in a warming world. “We need to figure out how to streamline the bureaucracy and build infrastructure” to create jobs, combat climate change and generate lower-cost energy.

Morton, 67, has a different takeaway. “I told Mr. Gold that this outdated technology, lines on 20-story-tall steel towers, is no longer viable.” She champions the approach of SOO Green Renewable Rail, which plans to ship Midwest wind energy to Eastern markets via underground transmission lines buried along existing railroad tracks. “This would cut out permitting issues and give you just one owner to deal with, and you wouldn’t be putting huge towers across 8,000 acres of our beautiful state.”

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