Sending Electrons by Rail: SOO Line Slowed by Regs

October 17, 2021

Checking in on a unique and critical project that could unlock immense amounts of clean energy from the central US for cities in the east and west.

The SOO Line transmission project uses existing rail right of ways, connecting underground electric transmission lines from Iowa winds to Chicago area customers.
I thought I’d check in on progress, and found this piece from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Frustrating news of red-tape delays for a project that seems absolutely critical. I hope people are FERC and elsewhere are watching this carefully.

Minneapolis Star Tribune:

The Soo Green Line would be a unique addition to the U.S. electricity grid. Running along a railroad corridor, the big underground power line would ship low-cost renewable energy from the Upper Midwest to eastern markets.

Now, if it can only surmount barriers in the power line approval process.

The 350-mile high-voltage direct current (HVDC) line would run from Mason City, Iowa, to a town about 50 miles west of Chicago. The firm behind the $2.5 billion project, Direct Connect Development Co., is based in St. Louis Park and funded by a global consortium of energy heavyweights.

Soo Green Line has a deal with the Canadian Pacific Railway (successor to the Soo Line Railroad) to host the power line along its right of way, alleviating the biggest problem in plotting transmission lines: resistance from landowners and unwanted environmental impacts.

“Underground transmission makes a tremendous amount of sense for projects that are bigger,” said Joe DeVito, Direct Connect’s president. “The primary issue most people have is the ‘viewshed’ — they don’t like to look at it.”

The Soo Green Line has other benefits. As an HVDC line, its “line loss” of electricity due to heat would be less than in a traditional alternating current (AC) power line. And at 525 kilovolts, it would be able to push through considerably more electricity than a standard 345-kilovolt AC line.

Soo Green is proposed as a “merchant” power line. The company has no traditional ratepayers, such as utilities do, to lean on for funding. Instead, power line users would foot the bill, providing Soo Green investors with a return.

“We are marrying up [electricity] generators and buyers,” DeVito said.

The idea for the Soo Green Line sprung from a plan years ago by CNN founder Ted Turner to build a wind farm on his South Dakota property. With no transmission option, Trey Ward, a lawyer working for Turner, developed the idea for a long-distance underground power line.

Ward, Direct Connect’s CEO, works out of North Carolina. DeVito, a power-industry veteran and engineer by training, works from St. Louis Park, as do half the company’s 10 employees. More than 100 more people are working on the project for Direct Connect’s partners.

Soo Green is about 80% owned by Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners K/S, a Danish private equity fund and a major investor in renewable energy projects.

Siemens Energy, a big German company providing key equipment for the project, owns 10%; New Jersey-based Jingoli Power, the line’s main construction contractor, 5%. Last week, the Pennsylvania utility company PPL also bought a 5% stake.

The Soo Green Line is uncommon in that it crosses two major U.S. power grids: MISO, which includes Minnesota and 14 other states in the country’s center; and PJM, which covers 13 states, mostly in the east, though also parts of Illinois and Indiana.

Government regulatory approvals don’t appear to be an issue, but crossing into PJM territory is. PJM, like MISO, is a nonprofit owned by utilities and other energy stakeholders. They both have a thicket of rules for new transmission.

Since the Soo Green Line would carry energy originating in MISO, not PJM, PJM considers it a power generation project, not a transmission line. But like MISO, PJM has a long line of generators, mostly solar and wind projects, already waiting to connect.

The hurdles are resulting in delays — big ones. Soo Green had originally anticipated starting construction as early as late this year and transporting electricity by 2024’s fourth quarter. The processing time in the PJM queue would push that date by more than two years, Soo Green says.

In June, Soo Green filed a complaint with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, asking that it require PJM to treat the project like a transmission project, not a generation one.

Despite the disputes, DeVito said he’s confident Soo Green will become reality.

“We have serious momentum with this project,” he said.

3 Responses to “Sending Electrons by Rail: SOO Line Slowed by Regs”

  1. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    And Bill Maher waited how many days (1100+) to get his simple rooftop solar connected? Weep weep, bleat bleat and oh shit.

    • Mark Mev Says:

      A nice review of what took so long on Bill Maher’s shed/solar system that Bill never mentions for some reason:
      The issue had nothing to do with the solar installation company Altadena Solar. The house in question is barely 1800sq feet and was completed in February 2018 as well as the modest 6.8kWh solar panel installation. The only issue was to install the solar disconnect switch. Los Angeles Building Dept would not allow a solar disconnect switch on the pole that services the property due to regulations. The distance from the pole to the new house was too great to dig the entire yard up. The City of LA requires a solar disconnect to be on a structure (small shed, ie solar shed). City zoning would only allow a shed to be built 55 feet from the property line which would have required a massive undertaking as that the entire property, not just a single house is serviced from a pole. To build a shed 5 feet from the property line where the pole resides required a “special variance” from the zoning administrator. The shed would have to be at least 41 sq feet also in size to house the disconnect switch. Que the architects $$$$$ and excessive $$$$ variance application fees and to need to hire a permit consulting company $$$$ to navigate the City of LA building department(s). Wait for a zoning department hearing 5 months turned to 9 months then an approved presentation to a public neighborhood city council meeting. City zoning officials take 30 to 60 days after such meetings to move to the ball then once approved there is another smaller public zoning administration hearing add 2-4 months for that. After all of that, the City of LA planning department revies the plans along with the approved variance to make sure it complies with their regulations queue 4 months est. Construction of the shed was approved in est. August 2020, construction of the shed requires an incredible slew of inspections from LABD/LADWP all of which take weeks to perform. Construction of shed completed in early November 2020. Covid and the holidays used as excuses as well. Electrical equipment installed and the 1 disconnect switch to flip ON the solar panels installed into the shed. January-March another slew of inspections and then on March 26th, 2021 the power was transferred from the pole to the shed in only 1.5 hours, and the new meter installed, and finally, after 1131 days the 1-switch was flipped ON. LADWP’s main excuse for the 4-year delay was that the power permit wasn’t closed out in February 2018 when the house was completed which is an oxymoron as that no one was allowed to close out the permit because they wouldn’t allow a solar disconnect switch to be installed on a pole. The irony now is that the shed wouldn’t be needed due to advancements in technology. If all the above seems like a lot, take note that is in a nutshell.

      • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

        In a nutshell, that is my understanding what happened including a lot of your detail. What we have is useful and blatantly positive actions in battle against self perpetuating regulations. Consider how the world has survived before the requirement to micromanagement of the location of a little shed. Consider what industries are moving to Texas to be able to function. Consider that the SOO LINE is so positive there should be no delay. Well aware situations are complex. Well aware time is short.

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