A Clean Grid Needs Transmission. Can We Build it in Time?

February 3, 2021


A company called Direct Connect is currently in the development and permitting phase of a privately financed, $2.5 billion project called the SOO Green HVDC Link, a proposed 349-mile, 2.1-gigawatt (!), 525-kilovolt transmission line to run underground along existing railroad from Mason City, Iowa, to the Chicago, Illinois, area. It aims to go into operation in 2024.

Going underground will allow the line to minimize environmental and visual impact. It will be much more resilient than an overhead line against weather, temperature shifts, sabotage, or squirrels

Two side-by-side cables will run through tubes of Cross-Linked Polyethylene (XLPE) and will be self-contained, lightweight, and easy to handle. They won’t get hot, interfere with signaling equipment (unlike AC lines), or affect rail operations. There are fiber-optic sensors along the lines to monitor sound and heat for any problems. 

(Nemo Link, the world’s first 400 kilovolt line using XLPE, runs undersea between the UK and Belgium; it began operation in January 2019.)

Running alongside the railroad means SOO Green will have no need to claim land via eminent domain. Almost all of that railroad is owned by Canadian Pacific (one of seven large “class one” railroads in the US), so there are a tractable number of parties to deal with. 

A deal like this offers railroads a new passive revenue stream; royalty fees well exceed what they get from similarly buried fiber-optic lines, of which there are more than 100,000 miles along US railroads. And it’s also a chance for railroads to be part of a positive sustainability story. 

The project is privately funded, so there will be no need for any complicated cost-allocation formulas. The financiers (including Siemens, which very rarely puts direct capital in transmission projects) will make their money back from those who use the line — the suppliers that put power on it, the shippers that sell power across it, and the buyers that consume the power — through competitive bidding for capacity. SOO Green is holding an open solicitation right now to allocate its 2,100 megawatts among them.

The aim is to create a more robust energy market by, for the first time, connecting the MISO and PJM territories. (MISO and PJM are regional transmission organizations; see previous post for details.) Wind power projects are backed up in MISO, waiting to connect, stymied by grid congestion. Meanwhile, nextdoor neighbor PJM is the largest liquid energy market in the world. 

The idea is that SOO Green will unlock renewable energy development in MISO; Direct Connect projects four to six new gigawatts. That energy will be transported to population centers in PJM, easing grid congestion, reducing the carbon intensity of the East Coast energy mix, and lowering power prices.

The connection will also allow MISO and PJM to share reserves for the first time, which could reduce the need for reserve capacity, increase reliability, and save consumers money. 

Because the MISO side will be drawing from such a geographically broad region, it is likely to be in use almost continuously. “When the wind isn’t blowing in North Dakota, it likely is in Minnesota,” Trey Ward, the CEO of Direct Connect, told me. “We anticipate upwards of 90 percent line utilization.”

“It’s as if we teleported a 2,100-megawatt wind turbine with a 90 percent capacity factor from Iowa into suburban Chicago,” he says. In fact, the converter station in PJM has applied to be treated as a capacity source in that market. (That will require some updating of regulations, just as power market regulations had to be updated to accommodate batteries.) 

The converter stations at each end of the line are worth looking at more closely. They will use the latest generation of Voltage Source Converters (VSCs) to exchange power between the HVDC line and the regional high-voltage alternating current (HVAC) systems already in place.


On august 14, 2018, Joshua Novacheck, a 30-year-old research engineer for the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, was presenting the most important study of his nascent career. He couldn’t have known it yet, but things were about to go very wrong.

At a gathering of experts and policy makers in Lawrence, Kansas, Novacheck was sharing the results of the Interconnections Seam Study, better known as Seams. The Seams study demonstrated that stronger connections between the U.S. power system’s massive eastern and western power grids would accelerate the growth of wind and solar energy—hugely reducing American reliance on coal, the fuel contributing the most to climate change, and saving consumers billions. It was an elegant solution to a complicated problem.  

Democrats in Congress have recently cited NREL’s work to argue for billions in grid upgrades and sweeping policy changes. But a study like Seams was politically dangerous territory for a federally funded lab while coal-industry advocates—and climate-change deniers—reign in the White House. The Trump administration has a long history of protecting coal companies, and unfortunately for Novacheck, a representative was sitting in the audience during the talk: Catherine “Katie” Jereza, then a deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Electricity.

Jereza fired off an email to DOE headquarters—before Novacheck had even finished speaking, according to sources who viewed the email—raising an alarm about Seams’ anti-coal findings. That email ignited an internal firestorm. According to interviews with five current and former DOE and NREL sources, supported by more than 900 pages of documents and emails obtained by InvestigateWest through Freedom of Information Act requests and by additional documentation from industry sources, Trump officials would ultimately block Seams from seeing the light of day. And in doing so, they would set back America’s efforts to slow climate change.


11 Responses to “A Clean Grid Needs Transmission. Can We Build it in Time?”

  1. Roger Walker Says:

    Thanks Peter. Jeez, the lengths those bastards will go to. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face!

  2. This would be great for RTOs like MISO, wind developers, solar developers, the railroads concerned, consumers + fighting climate change. If my math is correct, this is a win-win-win-win-win-big win.
    A great book along these lines is The Great Texas Wind Rush from 2013, by Kate Galbraith + Asher Price. Unfortunately that project was blocked, at least at the time.

  3. doldrom Says:

    I must admit that ten years ago I had expected by now to see high voltage DC lines crossing the Mediterranean linking Europe to solar (&wind) rich Sahara countries in partnerships in which energy and development would forge new geo-political stability.
    In many fields things are moving quickly, but in this most crucial one, developments and financing remain slower than I would have expected.

    • John Oneill Says:

      Western Europe has been stung badly in the past by relying on despotic countries in the Middle East for their oil energy, and is wary of doing likewise with Russian gas. Why would they risk putting a large part of their energy lifeline in the hands of regimes like Morrocco’s or Algeria’s, who could pull the noose tight in seconds, rather than long enough for fossil reserves to be used up? The same applies to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Proponents of an Asian supergrid, piping solar and wind power from the Gobi to the big Pacific rim economies, ignore political reality – who’d trust Beijing with the off switch ? Even if China were a totally trustworthy partner, the Gobi is much further from the Equator than the Sahara. Sunshine hours midwinter are just over half midsummer’s. Piping power from Australia would solve those issues, but bring up a few others.

      • J4Zonian Says:

        Europe would do it because they know MENA needs European clean safe renewable energy more than Europe needs MENA’s. The autocrats in MENA (largely caused by the resource curse of petrol) have barely started switching to RE; besides Morocco at 35% RE grid and building fast, Saudi Arabia at about 10 (or is it .5?) after numerous blaring announcements of huge investments, I can’t think of a single one out of single digits—most of them, low single digits. Once Europe (38%) gets up to high double digits they’ll no doubt get self-righteous and start blaming everyone not doing as well. Trade sanctions, tariffs, and nasty words galore, MENA’s in for some it.



        Canada helped by the US supergrid? while the US is at about 19% clean safe renewable electricity, Canada is at 66%; 60% hydro, and 6% wind, with fantastic potential for more plains and Atlantic offshore wind as well as much better solar insolation than Germany has. BC could be half powered by geothermal alone. Canada’s population is so much smaller than the US it won’t be able to help the US much, but with those 2 dispatchable resources and the third with a high and increasing capacity factor, they can help some. And you know they’ll offer, being Canadian and all.

        Canada, Australia, and the MENA countries are among those dependent on selling fossil fuels; they could each at least partly make up for that by selling RE electricity.

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          IIRC, Canada’s hydropower can be effectively used as grid storage to offset the peak production from US renewable energy. That is, Canada defers hydro generation (allowing water to build up) while consuming excess PV solar and wind (including from the US). As solar and wind dip, grids then draw on hydro power. This differs from pumped hydro in that the excess isn’t used to pump the water, but to power the grid, and the “pumping” is the accumulated natural flow of the river behind the hydroelectric dam.

          • J4Zonian Says:

            Yes, exactly, but since Canada’s grid is less than 1/8th the size of the US’s, the US will need a lot of its enormous hydro, geothermal, and 24/7 CSP potential as well. And a lot of wind at very high capacity factor.

            Say new US wind turbines reach an average hub height of 460 feet by 2025, roughly in line with current projections [which have constantly been exceeded]. According to NREL data, such turbines could hit capacity factors of 60+ percent across more than 750,000 square miles of US territory, and 50+ percent across 1.16 million square miles. And those numbers increase all the time.

            After a long delay—apparently the French know their nuclear electricity can’t compete with Iberian solar and offshore wind (and maybe because of the threats of violent NIMBYism from Catalan and Basque separatists)—there’s finally a 1.4 GW HVDC connection in the e. Pyrenees and a 2 GW submarine connection in the Bay of Biscay to bring Iberian power to Europe [1]. (The Poles have also stalled connections, to protect their coal burning from cheap German wind power.)

            We’ve already passed the beginning of the end for Coalish Pole, er, Poalish Coal, French nukes and everybody’s gas. More HVDC connections to Spain mean connections between North African solar—including Morocco’s CSP—and Europe’s North Sea wind, hydro and all its local RE. There are already 2 connections between Africa and Spain, (700 MW each) with another 700 in the works. [2] They’ll need more.

            comments at cleantechnica[DOT]com/2020/08/30/new-record-low-solar-price-bid-1-3%c2%a2-kwh/

            [1] 2 GW power capacity, able to reverse the direction of flow between Spain and France in 50 milliseconds

            [2] pv-magazine[DOT]com/2015/02/23/spains-link-to-france-boosts-intermittent-power_100018314/

          • John Oneill Says:

            That’s what Norway does with northern Europe – imports their excess wind, exports hydro. Norway has a massive pumped hydro scheme too, the world’s largest, as well as having dammed nearly every river in a very steep, very rainy country. It’s still nowhere near enough to cover what coal does now, when the wind’s not blowing in Denmark, Germany, Netherlands and Poland. The same is true for Canada and the USA. The lower 48 States draw about 400 minimum ranging up to 700 peak Gigawatts, and that’s without adding transport, heating, and industry, all now largely powered by oil and gas. Canada has 81 GW of hydro, with an average capacity factor of about 55%.

      • Of course, the wind could never simply stop blowing in random regions, rendering the whole landscape-wrecking, “build, build, build!” (“green” mantra) even more futile.

        Wait, it just happened in Europe:


        Climate change itself could change longstanding wind patterns, just as it may ocean currents. There’s already evidence for this.

        • J4Zonian Says:

          Yes, you’ve convinced me & I agree completely with you now. We should stop building, learn how to work with stones and branches again, and let 95%+ of humanity die in a violent spasm of (partly nuclear) conflict and hope we’re the ones who survive. If anybody does, of course. I’m now going to give up my computer and not write again while I try to remember knots and edible plants from childhood. I trust you’re going to do the same. Right? You are going to live according to your anti-technology philosophy, right?

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