Solving the Transmission Bottleneck

March 25, 2021

A big part of the energy transition will be to move renewable energy from where it is plentiful to where it is needed.

I’ve posted before about the obstacles to getting more transmission on the grid, which, during the previous administration, included simply thuggish behavior by by the coal lobbyists who had been installed in key agencies, specifically to hobble renewables.

But the biggest problem has likely been the simple political and regulatory obstacles of trying to site big overhead transmission lines running across a number of states, counties, and municipalities.
What if you could run lines underground, using existing rail and road right of ways, to cut thru the obstacles?

Undergrounding lines has been historically expensive, but one company claims to have solved the problem, and is working on a project that could, if successful, alter the landscape of energy, while leaving the actual landscape unchanged.


Today we’re going to look at a clever idea for bypassing many of those problems, namely, stitching together a national power grid by burying power lines along existing rail and road infrastructure, where rights-of-way are already established, thus eliminating the endless haggling with local governments and landowners. 

The idea has been gaining steam in the policy community for the last few years. FERC issued a report in June on challenges to transmission; siting along existing infrastructure was cited as a promising solution. In his Build Back Better plan, Biden promised to “take advantage of existing rights-of-way — along roads and railways — and cut red-tape to promote faster and easier [transmission] permitting.” This op-ed in The Hill sums up the benefits quite nicely, both of a national grid and of building it without siting battles. 

The vision is taking hold. And at least one small piece of that vision has gone beyond speculation into an actual permitting process.

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.

13 Responses to “Solving the Transmission Bottleneck”

  1. John Oneill Says:

    “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.”
    That seems optimistic, to say the least. At the moment, the South West Power Pool, which is west of the MISO territory, is getting 14 Gigawatts from wind – 56% of its total – but six hours ago, it was only getting 4GW, and about the same for the previous eighteen hours. Meawhile, the PJM, to the east of the MISO, is showing a similar pattern – about 5GW of wind now, but only about 1GW for the first half of the day. Both regions have had power emissions above 300 grams CO2 per kwh all day, while Ontario, using nuclear and hydro, has been below 60g/kwh all day, and for most of it, below 30g. ( Update – SWPP just dipped below 300 to 289 g/kwh, thanks to wind, but for most of the day it was above 500g. Toronto was making a tenth of the Midwest’s emissions per watt hour…and still is now. )

    • John Oneill Says:

      PS I only have data for the MISO itself for the first two hours of today, at which time they were getting 5.9 GW of wind delivered – from 22GW installed. Remember, Gaia only notices cumulative emissions, not the moments when your pet tech was doing particularly well.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      Yes, John,

      Reactors that have been built provide more energy than clean safe renewable energy that hasn’t been built. Thank you for your insight.

      Tell us now please if there is one single thing you like about renewable energy and one single thing you don’t like about nuclear reactors. No, sorry, don’t bother. It’s pointless, of course, to ask you that, or anything, including the obvious—whether it’s a job or hobby for you to push nukes and diss clean safe renewable energy even though renewables are better in every way—because we can never trust anything you say, having caught you in so many deceptions already.

      In any case, anytime you want to stop the cherry picking you’re welcome to. We won’t complain. Capacity factors accounted for, wind and solar power are cheaper per KWh than nukes. Way, way cheaper. So once enough wind, solar, geothermal, CSP… and storage is built, our energy system will provide all we need at lower cost than the current deadly way, and of course, way, way cheaper than if we were ever insane enough to try to build enough nukes to do it.

      Between half and three quarters of the nukes in the US are already losing money, despite the monstrous subsidies nukes get—well over 10 times what renewable energy has gotten, even when corn ethanol is counted as a renewable, which it’s not. If the lunatic right wing’s irrational bigmanlymachine bias wasn’t overriding its irrational market religion, there wouldn’t be any nukes left running now, and we’d have replaced them and fossil fuels, with efficiency, wiser lives, and clean safe renewable energy decades ago.

      Click to access What-Would-Jefferson-Do-2.4.pdf

      And of course the gap is growing as renewables get cheaper and nukes continue to get more expensive. Shall I once again explain distributed generation of complementary resources to you, or shall I just assume you’re lying again? Gosh, tough decision.

  2. Mark Mev Says:

    Could you tell me why you deleted my post?

    And yet, this is what MISO is planning in the future:
    and a simple analysis of the above

    • greenman3610 Says:

      have not deleted anything. will check and see if it’s in queue.

      • Mark Mev Says:

        Thanks, I had not seen the message before about waiting for a moderator, and then my original posts disappeared. Now they are back! Both of them. Computers are great. Computer software is even greater. I must keep repeating until I believe it.

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          You haven’t had your vaccination with its mind-control chip yet, have you? Then you’d have no trouble believing.

          • Mark Mev Says:

            I’m sorry to say that I have a close relative that believes that the mind-control chip is real.

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