Wind Power Transmission Project Would Save Natural Resources

Plains and Eastern Clean Line Land Usage estimates, based on conservative estimates from the Department of Energy Environmental Impact Statement

This blog is part of a series reviewing the proposed Plains and Eastern Clean Line project. Other blogs in the series are available here.

The Plains and Eastern Clean Line, a newly proposed high voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission project that would provide about 4,000 megawatts of high-quality Oklahoma/Texas wind power to Arkansas and Tennessee, is currently undergoing federal environmental review. As part of the federal process, the U.S. Department of Energy has drafted an Environmental Impact Statement to evaluate potential environmental harm and benefits for the project.

The project spans over 720 miles from western Oklahoma, across Arkansas and to its end point in Shelby County, Tennessee. Any project that large is bound to have an impact on the environment, so the real question is how big is the environmental impact, and do its environmental benefits outweigh the impacts? Perhaps the biggest negative impact the project would have is associated with its terrestrial impacts; however, these impacts are relatively small compared to the project benefits and other sources of power.

In order to determine impacts to the land, the Department of Energy evaluated agricultural resourcesgeology, soils and mineralsvegetation communities and land use. The majority of the acreage affected by Clean Line will be affected in the construction phase, and later returned to other uses. For example, wind turbines only use about 1% of the land that wind farms occupy – leaving 99% of the land for farming or other usage. Clean Line will compensate land owners for land use by the HVDC project. In total, the HVDC project is anticipated to disturb up to 2,670 acres, split between Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Tennessee (approximately 90% from access roads), while the corresponding wind farms would disturb between 2,164 and 3,246 acres split between Oklahoma and Texas. In the Department of Energy’s terms, “There would be no irreversible or irretrievable commitment of agricultural resources,” indicating many of the “used” acres could be eventually returned to production.

To be sure, these quantities of land sound substantial; however, the numbers need to be put into context. Listed below are individual parts of the Plains and Eastern Clean Line project, with the quantity of acres disturbed associated with each part, as well as some more commonplace comparisons.

Fiber Regeneration - 2 acres – Less than two football fields

AC Collector System – Between 1.8 to 7.8 acres – Less than a small elementary school complex

Each Converter Station – Between 40 to 60 acres – Roughly the size of two Wal-Mart stores

HVDC Towers – Between 5 to 86 acres – About the size of Memorial Park in Bentonville, Arkansas. The range is based on a best case scenario using monopoles (5 acres), or a worst case scenario using lattice towers (86 acres).

Access Roads – 2,394 acres – Slightly larger than the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport (XNA)

Wind Farms – Between 2,164 to 3,246 acres – Two to three average farms in Texas County, Oklahoma (where one of the converter stations will be located)

In total, the 5,916 acres associated with the Plains and Eastern Clean Line project, and affiliated wind farms, represents a maximum of 9.25 square miles, or about the size of the city of Grove in Northeastern Oklahoma. Grove is located next to the 46,500 acre, man-made Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees. The Grand River Dam Authority (GRDA) built a 120 megawatt hydroelectric dam on Grand River to create the lake. The lake is currently inundating approximately 7.8 times more land, with a nameplate power capacity of only 3% of the proposed Clean Line project.

Compared to other threats to land use, the Clean Line project uses a relatively small amount of land. According to the Farmland Information Center, nearly 2.5 million acres of rural land was lost to development nationwide from 2007-2010. That’s a loss of about 0.2% out of the nearly 1.4 billion acres of rural land. According to the National Resources Inventory by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the United States loses about an acre of agricultural land every minute.  Additionally, every year, about 7-11 million acres of cropland fails or is abandoned. That’s about 3-5% of all cropland. Specifically in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas, about 122,000 acres of agricultural land are lost annually across the four states due to development.

While the Plains and Eastern Clean Line project will use land (indeed, any manmade structure does), this project may actually help reduce natural resource usage overall. As noted in the EIS, the project would likely displace other forms of energy usage, like coal or natural gas powered generation. Over the 80 year lifespan of the project, it is estimated that Clean Line will help deliver about 1.6 billion megawatt hours of wind power. In order to generate an equivalent amount of power, coal-fired power plants would consume a total of about 92,143 acres (144 square miles) of coal-filled railroad cars (not including required track, engines, coal mines, coal-fired power plants, coal ash ponds, surface water, transmission or other associated infrastructure). Natural gas power plants would need about 12.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas to generate an equivalent amount of power of the Clean Line project. That quantity of natural gas, if liquified (condensed) and placed in liquid natural gas (LNG) rail tank cars, would result in 99,360 acres (155 square miles) of LNG-filled rail tank cars (not including required track, engines, gas wells and pads, gas-fired power plants, transmission or other associated infrastructure). And while wind power would use substantially less land than fossil fuels, wind energy also has none of the associated harmful air emissions, water consumption or other negative environmental impacts.

These figures are not academic.

The Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency that oversees the nation’s forests, is planning on leasing some 6,000 acres of national forest for the Green Hollow coal mine in Utah. The mine could extract some 56.6 million tons of coal over its lifetime, which could theoretically generate about 104 million megawatt hours of electricity. That’s about 93% less electricity than wind turbines connected to the Plains and Eastern Clean Line – for a similar amount of land area. Given the option between a wind power transmission line and a coal mine, it’s clear which option is sustainable, and which is not.

Given that Clean Line’s one-time-use of 5,916 acres is a very small portion of rural land development, many of the acres used can ultimately be returned to production, the project footprint is smaller than other forms of existing power generation, and that the clean wind power produced can offset the negative effects that other energy resources have on natural resources and public health, it’s clear the Plains and Eastern Clean Line project is a net benefit to land and natural resource conservation.

The Department of Energy is taking public comment on the Plains and Eastern Clean Line project until March 19th, 2015. If, after reading this blog, you would like to submit a public comment supporting the project, click here.

This blog is part of a series reviewing the proposed Plains and Eastern Clean Line project (PECLseries).

Coal Equations

1 ton = 1,842 kilowatt hours (1.842 megawatt hours)

Clean Line generation = 4,550 MW * 50% CF * 8,765.8 hours/yr * 80 years = 1,595,375,600 megawatt hours

1,595,375,600 MWh (Clean Line) / 1.842 MWh (coal) = 866,110,532 tons of coal to replace Clean Line

866,110,532 tons of coal / 121 tons per train car * 53 feet per car = 379,370,728 feet / 5,280 feet per mile = 71,850 miles

379,370,728 feet * 10.58 feet train width = 4,013,742,311 square feet of coal railroad cars / 43,560 square feet per acre = 92,143 acres of coal railroad cars / 80 years = 1,152 acres of coal railroad cars annually

Gas Equations

1,000 cubic feet gas = 127 kilowatt hours (0.127 megawatt hours)

1,595,375,600 MWh (Clean Line) / 0.127 MWh (gas) = 12,562,012,598 MCF (gas) * 1,000 cf per MCf = 12,562,012,598,000 cubic feet of gas to replace Clean Line

12,562,012,598,000 cubic feet of gas / 2,534,168 cf per rail tank car, liquid natural gas = 4,957,056 LNG rail tank cars

LNG Rail Tank Car square feet, area = 873.1 sq. feet (Length = 81.83 feet; Width = 10.67 feet)

4,957,056 LNG rail tank cars * 873.1 sq. feet / 43,560 sq. ft. per acre = 99,360 acres / 640 acre per sq. mile = 155 sq. miles

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Sorry I didn’t read your entire blog post, I simply looked at the equations at the bottom and determined the rest of your blog was not worth my time.

1. Your equations assume that the energy on the P&E line would be 100% wind all the time. This is false. There will be natural gas/coal/diesel energy (as Clean Line’s investor National Grid has suggested for their other projects). And you also haven’t figured in the backup that would be required to run non-stop, even when the wind is blowing perfectly, so that it can supply energy on demand when it doesn’t. Ignoring those costs and factors alone discredit your blog.

2. You assume a capacity factor of 50% for every wind farm that might provide energy for the line. How many wind farms currently operate at 50% capacity? Average capacity factors for US wind farms in the US in 2013 was 32%. For the first 11 months of 2014 it averaged 33%. Exaggerating the efficiency of wind to advance your agenda discredits you, Clean Line and the P&E project.

If the project your are stumping for was truly worthwhile, I would think you would base your arguments on facts.

Comment by Two things on March 3, 2015 12:16 pm

“Two Things”, thanks for reading, at least a part of the blog. I’d encourage you to read the full blog at your convenience.

First, the Department of Energy Environmental Impact Statement shows that the Plains and Eastern Clean Line would enable 4,550 megawatts of wind. That’d enable an overbuild of the transmission project so that even if the wind farms aren’t producing at peak production, that the line is used at a higher level of use. If the EIS is approved (which appears likely) and Clean Line deviates substantially from what was evaluated (e.g., wind power), they could open themselves up to legal challenge. Besides, high quality wind energy is cheaper than just about any other form of new generation, it’s unlikely that there would be any demand for any other form of power from the Clean Line project.

Second, the “back up” argument against all renewable energy has been proven false time and again and ignores how utilities operate. Utilities use renewable power when it’s available, and other forms when it isn’t. Texas generated more than 10% of its total electric demand from wind power last year. Other states, like Iowa, have reached over 25% of their electric generation from wind power – there is not a corresponding 25% increase in generation from other power plants. A new study shows wind power is very reliable:

Third, the Oklahoma panhandle has some of the best wind energy resources in the country. The Wind Development Zones (WDZ’s) evaluated in the EIS are all within about 40 miles of the Optima substation in western Oklahoma. Existing wind farms already installed in the interior region are already achieving capacity factors over 50%. The Department of Energy used a realistic energy output estimate for the location where the wind farms would be located, as opposed to a national average. Here’s just one type of commercially available wind turbine that can easily achieve capacity factors over 50% in excellent wind regimes (like Oklahoma):

Comment by Simon Mahan on March 3, 2015 1:26 pm

Help me understand something, I’m sure I must be missing something. If P&E is to transmit 4000 mw of energy, but only 4550 mw of wind farms are built, and even if they meet the lofty goal of 50% capacity (50% of 4550 is 2775 mw) then there would need to be some other source of energy on the line, right? Or are you saying that 9100 mw worth of wind farms would be built to allow for producing at least 4000 mw?

Clean Line, itself, is now finally openly admitting there would be other sources of energy on the line, natural gas. Seems you should check in with their Directors of Development about what will really be on the line. They never admitted to natural gas before, what else haven’t they been admitting to?

“…A project like this will lower that wholesale [power] rate,” Lawlor said. “Natural gas and wind are playing more of a role” in power generation, he said.

You misunderstand the correlation on the backup generation. Nobody ever made the argument that there would be an EQUAL corresponding generation from other sources. Putting words into other people’s mouths makes you look desperate. The argument is that those types of traditional plants would have to exist for when they are needed.

What’s your position on the use of eminent domain? It shouldn’t be left out of any conversation about Clean Line.

“Lawlor said Clean Line Energy/Grain Belt Express would seek eminent domain only as a last resort to finalize acquisition of right-of-way easements.”

One of the grandest lies that continue to spread. Clean Line Energy has sought the use of eminent domain years before ever contacting many of the impacted landowners on each of their projects.

Comment by Two things on March 3, 2015 2:04 pm

The line wouldn’t need to be 100% “filled” at all times. Therefore, no, there doesn’t “need to be some other source of energy on the line” as you assert. If the 4,550 MW of wind farms reached peak capacity, the 4,000 MW transmission line would require approximately 550 MW of wind curtailment (turned off). 100% capacity factors do occur. There’s a sweet spot of over building wind farms (to maximize line usage), but not so much that wind farms need to be substantially curtailed, and that’s precisely what the Department of Energy modeled in the Environmental Impact Statement.

Your news article doesn’t “prove” that Clean Line would use other resources on the line. First, news reporters and newspapers are notorious at misquoting people and not providing full context. Second, the quote says “Natural gas and wind are playing more of a role”, presumably in wholesale power prices, which is true; however, Clean Line’s premise has been to rely on wind power and not natural gas. The random quote does not say that Clean Line will use natural gas. Third, if natural gas were to be used on the Plains and Eastern Clean Line, a brand new natural gas power plant would have to be constructed exceptionally close to the Optima substation near Guymon, Oklahoma and natural gas pipeline infrastructure would also have to exist; however, nowhere in the Department of Energy’s Environmental Impact Statement does such a power plant exist in the planning process – only wind power (not to mention, it’d just be cheaper to build a new natural gas power plant closer to demand as opposed to transporting the electrons hundreds of miles). Finally, the news article is talking about the Grainbelt Express, not the Plains and Eastern Clean Line project, so even if natural gas were to be used on Grainbelt Express (which I highly doubt for the reasons previously mentioned here), the Plains and Eastern project is a completely different project.

You previously stated, “And you also haven’t figured in the backup that would be required to run non-stop, even when the wind is blowing perfectly, so that it can supply energy on demand when it doesn’t.” Now you’ve said, “Nobody ever made the argument that there would be an EQUAL corresponding generation from other sources,” which, I believed your previous statement did just that. If not, please clarify your point. When low cost renewable energy is available, higher cost power plants are turned off in order to reduce utility and ratepayer costs. If those renewable energy resources are not available, utilities use whatever resources are available to them at the time and can plan day-ahead, hour-ahead or real time resources. Wind and solar power work very well together. The National Renewable Energy Lab has shown how the United States could reach 80% renewable energy by 2050, by using substantial amounts of wind and solar, with only minor levels of gas, coal or nuclear power.

Compared to other sources of energy, importing wind using transmission lines is less intrusive than many of the energy resources used today by the Tennessee Valley Authority. TVA heavily depended on eminent domain to come into existence. Hydroelectric dams forced thousands of people to completely abandon all of their property, and for that property to be permanently inundated with flood waters. TVA operates reservoir lakes covering hundreds of thousands of acres, and hundreds of thousands more land acres surrounding the manmade reservoirs. Not to mention the eminent domain used for thousands of miles of railroad to ship in coal, or thousands of miles of pipelines to bring in natural gas, or the thousands of miles of highway to transport nuclear material for reactors. With the Clean Line project, people could still use the vast majority of their land. Additionally, the Constitution (the 5th Amendment) provides the government the ability to use eminent domain, so long as property owners are given “just compensation”. Ideally, eminent domain would never have to be used, but the Clean Line project is a drop in the bucket compared to the historical use of eminent domain by TVA.

Comment by Simon Mahan on March 3, 2015 11:02 pm

Thanks for sharing your info and your opinions.

I do not believe your assertion that the lines would only carry wind-generated energy all of the time. Perhaps Clean Line should make such a promise if that’s their intent.

So, the key word was EQUAL, I’ve highlighted it again for you. I fail to believe that plants would have an on/off switch when all of the turbines produce at 100% capacity at the same time, if that ever happened. Again, the national average is 33% and you said 50% was the mark for the wind farms in western Oklahoma.

For you ignore the impacts on entire width of the easement and on surrounding property is narrow-minded in my opinion. Property owners have made it clear that Clean Line does not offer just compensation for the impact it has on their property. The number of easements they have secured, or not secured, speaks for itself. The only way to determine fair/just compensation would be if Clean Line were to negotiate without the threat of eminent domain. If Clean Line really intended to not condemn land, they wouldn’t apply for it, and if it came with public utility status, they would promise not to use it. At least not with the high percentage of landowners it looks like they would have to.

Let’s not forget there are other options to reduce the nation’s use of fossil fuel energy, options that don’t have the same problems that Clean Line introduces. Options that aren’t as prone to reliability concerns. But, wealthy investors haven’t found a way to profit so greatly from those. And there’s a long history of what/who money can buy.

Comment by Two things on March 5, 2015 6:13 pm

In all of Clean Line’s materials, in all of their dealings with the public, in their name, and in the Department of Energy draft Environmental Impact Statement, wind power is the only energy resource discussed when dealing with the Plains and Eastern Clean Line project. Clean Line even issued a request for information for wind developers to respond to – asking how many developers would like to put wind on the Plains and Eastern line. Some 16,000 megawatts of wind power capacity were found through the request for information process. Wind developers are already submitting proposals to utilities, based on using Clean Line transmission. If that’s not enough to prove the sincerity of Clean Line’s work on wind power, I’m not sure what else can be done.

When renewable energy is available, traditional (fossil fuel) power plants are turned off – it saves money. Here’s a short three minute video explaining how it works and why renewable energy resources are good:

Let me introduce you to a wind turbine power curve. Power curves explain how much wind power is generated, based on wind speed. Slower wind speeds produce less energy through wind turbines; higher wind speeds are better. Higher capacity factors (50%+) mean lower cost energy from wind power. Please read our report regarding new turbine technology, and how to read a wind turbine power curve:

Here’s just one turbine model that’ll easily hit 50%+ capacity factors in Oklahoma’s 8-9 meter per second winds:
“Best in Class Capacity Factor, 54% (1.6-100) and 53% (1.7-100) @ 7.5 m/s”

Regarding the “entire width of the easement”, the Department of Energy evaluated those areas and specifically explain that most activities can continue to occur under the power lines (particularly farming). The numbers I provided are from the Department of Energy regarding the footprint of the Plains and Eastern project. Keep in mind, the project will provide about 1.6 billion megawatt hours over its life – or about 92,143 acres (144 square miles) of coal-filled railroad cars, or 99,360 (155 square miles) of LNG-filled rail tank cars. That, and compared to the more than half a million acres of property inundated by TVA hydroelectric dams, the Clean Line project has an extremely small footprint. Eminent domain doesn’t mean private property can be taken for free, the Constitution requires “just” compensation for taking private property.

I agree, there are additional options for reducing fossil fuel use. The Plains and Eastern project represents 1) a huge quantity of 2) low cost 3) renewable energy that is 4) available in the very near term – there’s no other option that hits all of those qualities. We’ll still need considerable amounts of solar, energy efficiency and other renewable energy to move further away from fossil fuels.

Comment by Simon Mahan on March 5, 2015 11:20 pm

CV Find a Solars Systems…

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