Last week, a massive wind power project in the US midwest won the green light for a go-ahead, which was probably the last thing oil and gas stakeholders wanted to hear on top of a huge triple loss on three fossil fuel pipeline projects. Nevertheless, that’s what happened. To cap the week from hell, over the weekend record-breaking heat began roasting parts of the US, sealing the case for ditching fossil fuels in favor of a speedy transition to renewable energy.
What Is This Huge Wind Power Project Of Which You Speak?
If you guessed that massive new wind power project is the Grain Belt Express, run right out and buy yourself a cigar. Once built, the nearly 800-mile, $2.3 billion, 4,000-megawatt high voltage DC wind power transmission line will tap into the rich wind resources of Kansas and send those clean kilowatts shooting along to points east, through Missouri and on into Indiana and Illinois.
The Grain Belt Express sure will make wind developers in Kansas happy. The Sunflower State is neck deep in wind energy potential, but there aren’t that many people around who can make use of it. Short of a mass migration into Kansas, new transmission lines are the only way to unstop the bottleneck (well, until that thing about green hydrogen opens up the potential for alternative transportation by rail or highway).
Where were we? Oh right, the bottleneck. That’s where the high voltage DC line comes in. Today’s transmission lines run on alternating current, which is fine for the local-oriented grid of the past 100 years or so. However, AC transmission involves significant energy loss over distance.
The grid of the future is a horse of a different color because renewable energy resources are often located far from the places where people concentrate. High voltage DC fits the bill for long distance with minimal energy loss.
“HVDC is now the becoming the method of choice for interconnecting asynchronous AC grids, providing efficient, stable transmission and control capability. HVDC can also be used for long-distance bulk power transmission, able to send large amounts of electricity over very long distances with low electrical losses,” explains the US Department of Energy in a recent fact sheet.
The Energy Department must have had Kansas in mind when it wrote those lines, because it goes on to say that “HVDC is a key technology in overcoming problems with renewable generation like wind, solar and hydro –that these resources are seldom located near the population centers that need them.”
Wind Power Does Benefit Missouri After All
That’s all right for Kansas. The problem is that 200 miles of Missouri lie between Kansas and all those other points east.
When the Grain Belt Express first hit the drawing board back in 2011, Indiana and Illinois gave it the thumbs-up in short order. However, property owners in Missouri dug in their heels and argued that the developer, Clean Line Energy, was not entitled to acquire land for the project through eminent domain.
Things took an interesting turn last year when Clean Line sold the project to Chicago-based Invenergy, but some Missouri state legislators were still trying to monkeywrench the project on through this year. Critics argued that the Grain Belt Express did not qualify for eminent domain because it would not provide a benefit to the public. However, the legislative effort fell flat.
As for that thing about no public benefit, the nonprofit Missouri Public Utility Alliance begs to differ. The organization has lobbied vigorously for the Grain Belt Express to go forward on the basis of a broad benefit to its members’ rate payers.
“The project will benefit many Missourians who receive their electricity from community-owned, non-profit local municipal utilities,” MPUA explained in a statement dated May 15, 2020. For those of you keeping score at home, that covers 350,000 Missourians served by 39 community-owned utilities.
According to MPUA, the Grain Belt Express is expected to save its members $12.8 million annually while bringing 1,500 jobs and $500 million in infrastructure investment into Missouri.
Wind Power Project Seems To Be On, For Now
So much for the Missouri state legislature. As for the court battle, that’s still raging on. However, opponents of the Grain Belt Express suffered a big blow last week.
As reported by St. Louis Today (follow the link to support local journalism), on July 9 the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District affirmed that the state’s Public Utilities Commission made the correct decision last year, when it affirmed Invenergy’s right to buy the project from Clean Line and consequently acquire land through eminent domain. The Commission had previously determined that the project would indeed provide significant benefits to the public.
Although anything could happen next, for now the project is on, and Invenergy has begun contacting property owners to negotiate the acquisitions.
Speaking of Invenergy, the company is a major investor in Kansas wind farms, so there’s that.
That Was The Week From Hell
As for those fossil fuel projects, last week brought fresh hell for the beleaguered oil and gas industry in the form of court setbacks for both the Dakota Access and the Keystone XL oil pipelines. In addition, the two developers behind the proposed Atlantic Coast gas pipeline decided to cancel their project.
Those three projects were specific to different parts of the US. Of broader concern to fossil fuel stakeholders is — or should be — the mounting pile of evidence that the looming climate crisis is already here, with the latest manifestation being the start of a record-setting heatwave across major parts of the US southwest. The high temps are expected to drift eastward in the coming weaks.
Or, as CBS News put it, “Relentless heat wave will bake the U.S. for ‘multiple weeks.'”
More Bad News For Fossil Fuels
That’s not the end of the week from hell. Last week also brought chilling evidence that COVID-19 is rampaging out of control across the US. The worst outbreaks are occurring among states that never committed to a full lockdown earlier this year, and re-opened early to boot.
That’s something to keep in mind as you read last week’s short-term US energy outlook from the US Energy Information Agency. EIA took note of a sharp drop in liquid fuel consumption in the US earlier this year, as state-based COVID-19 lockdowns put a damper on both air and ground travel.
EIA also observed that consumption began to rise in May and June as some states relaxed their restrictions, and it forecast that consumption will continue to rise as more economic activity resumes.
If you caught that thing about state-based lockdowns, that’s the key to the problem for fossil fuel stakeholders. The COVID-19 lockdown was never fully implemented on a nationwide basis. As new COVID-19 cases skyrocket across the country, some states are finally taking the virus seriously for the first time, leading to the potential for a fresh round of lockdowns that will continue to put a damper on fuel consumption in the coming months.
All this is by way of saying that when EIA forecasts a rise in liquid fuel consumption for the second half of this year, don’t expect an earth shattering comeback.
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Image: Grain Belt Express wind transmission route through Missouri via grainbeltexpress.com.
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