Oklahoma Wind Power Aimed At The Southeast

Study after study confirms it: A key to our clean energy future is an updated, efficient and extensive transmission system that gives grid operators the flexibility to use all the power – particularly wind power — that’s produced.

There’s good news on that front: A 750-mile, high-voltage direct current (HVDC) line from the Oklahoma Panhandle to Tennessee  is a step closer to reality after gaining a key federal regulatory approval [PDF].

Plains and Eastern Clean Line

image via Clean Energy Partners

The Federal Regulatory Energy Commission said the developers of the proposed Plans and Eastern Clean Line project, Clean Line Energy Partners, can beging selling space on the line to major power producers. Oklahoma Energy Secretary Michael Ming called the approval “a great step towards developing Oklahoma’s low-cost clean energy resources.”

Take a look at the wind resource map put out by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and you’ll see why this line has been proposed. Western Oklahoma — and surrounding areas in Texas and Kansas — is home to some of the best winds in the lower 48.

image via NREL

The Plains and Eastern Clean Line project would connect that power with utilities in Tennessee, Arkansas and other markes in the Mid-South and Southeast that are now “weighted toward coal-fired generation sources,” according to Clean Energy Partners. The 3,500 megawatt line would be able to move enough power to keep the lights on, the AC whirring and the ice tea cold in more than 1 million homes, the project developer says.

Of course, it will also cut through farms and run near communities, and nobody wants a high-voltage direct current transmission line in her backyard. And yes, we need to encourage more distributed, community-based clean energy, which would make these lines less necessary.

But for now, big wind is the most competitive, viable clean energy source out there – and by its nature it needs wide transmission, as a recent report from the Argonne National Laboratory suggested, in order to be fully taken advantage of.

Looking at Illinois, the report said that to accommodate sudden bursts of wind, large, inflexible power plants had to be turned off and then on again, wasting power in the process.

Critics noted that grid operators actually had the power to ship surplus power out of state, largely obviating the problem in Illinois. But there’s little dispute that as increasing amounts of wind power does come online, the ability to move electrons far and wide to balance supply and demand will be key.

Mind you, the Plains and Eastern Clean Line still has a long way to go. The developers say they’re working with local officials and community leaders in 30 counties across Oklahoma, Arkansas and Tennessee in siting the $3.5 billion project, and they don’t expect it to be operating until 2017.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.