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New Transmission Line To Carry Wind Energy Not Met With Open Arms


From solar to wind and another controversy. Oklahoma is one of the country's biggest wind power producers, but it needs new infrastructure. A proposal to build a $2 billion transmission line would transform the state into a national wind energy hub. But as Joe Wertz of StateImpact reports, this plan has many critics.

JOE WERTZ, BYLINE: In western Oklahoma you don't have to travel far before you see and hear this.


WERTZ: Hundreds of feet in the sky, three giant turbine blades slice through the air, converting wind into electricity. These turbines are constructed in massive packs known as wind farms. Oklahoma has about 30 of these, but in one of the windiest parts of the state, there are almost none-.

CARROLL BEAMAN: Every direction you go, there's wind farms except the Panhandle of Oklahoma.

WERTZ: Carroll Beaman is an oil man born during the height of the Dust Bowl. He worked at Exxon for 19 years. These days, he brokers land for wind turbine leases.

BEAMAN: Very sparsely settled - no industry except for some of the oil and gas, so it's never had transmission.

WERTZ: The Oklahoma Panhandle has plenty of wind. Power lines - not so much, especially the high-capacity transmission kind needed to plug a wind turbine into the power grid. That might change.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Their applicant proposed route follows along here.

WERTZ: Dozens of people crowded into a recent public meeting in Guymon. These landowners can make plenty of money from a power line or turbine lease. They asked questions and looked at maps showing possible routes for the 700 mile so-called Plains and Eastern Clean Line. It's designed to carry wind power from Oklahoma's Panhandle across Arkansas to Memphis where it will be funneled into the southeastern power grid.

MICHAEL SKELLY: We've maxed out the available grid, so if you want to continue to grow the export of Oklahoma wind to other states, you need new infrastructure to do that with.

WERTZ: Michael Skelly is president of Clean Line Energy Partners, the company that wants to build this and four other projects across the U.S. These aren't the typical AC power lines that crisscross the country. The proposal is a much more expensive direct current line, which is also a lot more efficient.

Mark Jacobson teaches engineering at the Atmosphere/Energy program at Stanford University. He says AC power lines can lose up to one third of the electricity en route. With DC lines, that loss can be less than 10 percent.

MARK JACOBSON: As a result, the large-scale integration of wind and solar energy in the United States will depend on the build-out of high-voltage direct current.

WERTZ: The U.S. Department of Energy is evaluating the proposal. If built, it's expected to create thousands of construction jobs and hundreds of permanent positions to maintain the line. The project has opposition in Oklahoma. Dave Ulery cofounded a group that's fighting it in Arkansas.

DAVE ULERY: It just seems like they're overhyping the benefits that we would receive from the project.

WERTZ: Ulery's group says Clean Line hasn't been upfront with landowners about the route, and he says the company has overstated the need for new cross-state power lines. Jacobson from Stanford disagrees.

JACOBSON: States and countries can either be leaders or followers. You know, they can either lead in this transition to clean renewable energy which is inevitable, or they can lag behind and follow and not take advantage of the financial benefits.

WERTZ: Jacobson says the country's power grid needs an upgrade if the U.S. wants to bring cleaner energy to market and build a grid that can support future demand for technology like electric cars. For NPR News, I'm Joe Wertz in Oklahoma City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe was a founding reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma (2011-2019) covering the intersection of economic policy, energy and environment, and the residents of the state. He previously served as Managing Editor of Urban Tulsa Weekly, as the Arts & Entertainment Editor at Oklahoma Gazette and worked as a Staff Writer for The Oklahoman. Joe was a weekly arts and entertainment correspondent for KGOU from 2007-2010. He grew up in Bartlesville, Okla. and studied journalism at the University of Central Oklahoma.