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Gone with the wind 

Plains and Eastern Clean Line may be dead, but clean power still coming.

click to enlarge MOVING ON: Though the Plains and Eastern Clean Line Project won't come through Arkansas, other renewable energy sources, including wind energy, are gearing up.
  • MOVING ON: Though the Plains and Eastern Clean Line Project won't come through Arkansas, other renewable energy sources, including wind energy, are gearing up.

For the record: a belated obituary for the Plains and Eastern Clean Line Project, the proposed high-voltage transmission line that would have delivered wind-generated power from Oklahoma to Tennessee and other states in the Southeast.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently announced it would terminate a partnership to develop the 700-mile line — partly because of Arkansas's opposition.

The Clean Line project has been presumed defunct since Houston-based Clean Line Energy Partners acknowledged to Arkansas Business in January that it had abandoned plans to use Arkansas as a route, which would have entailed constructing towers across 12 counties in the northern half of the state, from Fort Smith to Memphis. (A spokeswoman for the company told Reuters that "the project is not dead, but is on a much slower track" after the DOE announcement.)

Clean Line struggled to find buyers for its power in Tennessee and points east. It also encountered stiff resistance from property owners, state policymakers and the Arkansas congressional delegation, which celebrated the recent news of the DOE's withdrawal from the project. Even some Arkansans typically sympathetic to environmental issues objected to the idea of 200-foot towers marring the landscape.

High-voltage, long-haul transmission lines are considered an important part of the effort to shift away from fossil fuels because they allow power to be moved from the windy, sparsely populated states of the Great Plains to the cities of the Southeast. That's why the Sierra Club and other groups fighting climate change embraced projects like Clean Line. But, according to Arkansas Sierra Club Director Glen Hooks, the project's demise won't reverse the state's progress toward reducing carbon emissions.

"It's a setback, but I don't think it's going to be critical," Hooks said. "I was disappointed that the Clean Line project didn't go through. I think it was a good project for us to move energy from the places where people aren't to the places where people are. ... But I think clean energy is pretty much unstoppable."

He cited the massive, 2,000-megawatt Wind Catcher project just across the Arkansas-Oklahoma state line, which will feed power to Northwest Arkansas utilities and help Fayetteville meet its goal of 100 percent clean and renewable energy by 2050. Wind Catcher will be the largest single wind farm in the U.S. when completed, Hooks said.

"And then there are all these similar projects for solar that are coming online in the state," he added.

Even in Arkansas, renewable energy is gearing up in a major way. Entergy is investing in solar generation in South Arkansas, including one facility in Stuttgart and another near Lake Village. SWEPCO is behind the plans to sell Wind Catcher power to Northwest Arkansas customers — including Walmart, which is hungry for clean power. In the River Valley, Clarksville's municipal utility contracted with Arkansas-based Scenic Hill Solar to build a 20,000-panel solar plant, completed in January.

Commercial and residential solar generation is also set to grow, as it is doing in other sunny Southern states. The pace of that growth depends in part on an upcoming Arkansas Public Service Commission decision on net metering rules, which determine the rate at which commercial and residential customers are compensated by utilities for feeding "distributed generation" power back into the grid. (Though Entergy and other power companies are getting into the renewables business themselves, they fear a big increase in distributed generation could upend their business model, which is why they're pushing the PSC to give less advantageous terms to homeowners and businesses that invest in solar.) John Bethel, the PSC's executive director, said the three-member commission will likely reach a decision on the rule in the coming weeks.

Clean Line's fall was the result of "unique circumstances," Hooks said. After the PSC refused to deem Clean Line Energy Partners a public utility in the state — partly because the project initially included no plans to provide power to Arkansans — the company found a workaround by partnering with the DOE. It then tried to use a section of the federal Energy Policy Act to claim eminent domain authority.

"The major sticking point was you had a private company that was being granted the right of eminent domain, rather than a public entity," Hooks said. "It was a real flash point for property owners and gave them something to rally around. ... It really resonated with some folks." That made the project "controversial in Arkansas in a way it really shouldn't have been."

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