By LARRY KERSHNER
Clean Lines Energy Partners, based in Houston, Texas, rolled into Fort Dodge Tuesday morning to establish contacts with area contractors for when the company begins construction a 500-mile, high-voltage, direct-current electric power line from O'Brien County to Rock Island, Ill., then to markets farther east.
The $1.7 billion, 3,500-megawatt Rock Island Clean Lines project is expected to pass through, or close to, Webster County. Beth Conley, regional outreach manager for Clean Lines, said the company is still working out details of the power line's route, while seeking construction permits and utility authorizations; however it's confident the two-year project will begin in 2014.
Conley said a variety of services will be needed, including surveying, flaggers, storage, brush clearing, transportation for heavy equipment, concrete supplies and contractors, road and farm field restoration, catering, restaurants and hotel accommodations.
Conley said she was pleased with Tuesday's reception where 25 to 30 people attended at the Fort Dodge Country Club. She said Clean Lines needs to assess what services are available in the area. Potential contractors came from the counties of Webster, Hamilton, Humboldt, Kossuth, Pocahontas and Emmet. No contracts or agreements were signed, Conley said. The meeting was for information gathering for CLEP.
Clean Lines' general contractor is Kiewit Corp., of Omaha, Neb. Fort Dodge was the second of six meetings Clean Lines is holding across Iowa this week. Meetings were held in Sioux City Monday. Other meetings were scheduled for Des Moines, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids and Davenport.
Conley said the remainder of 2012 and 2013 will focus on routing the line, obtaining permits and utility authorizations. She said construction is planned to begin in 2014 and the line should be in operation by 2017.
In February, the company announced it had selected an unnamed quarter-section in O'Brien County for its converter section. The company plans to obtain its electricity from new wind turbines in northwestern Iowa, northeastern Nebraska and southeastern South Dakota.
Since turbines generate an alternate current, Conley said, it must be converted to direct current for transmission on the line. Another converter station will be erected at Morris, Ill.
In May, CLEP earned regulatory approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, that allows the company to open rate negotiations. It will seek regulatory approvals from Illinois Commerce Commission later this year, Conley said, and from the Iowa Utility Board in 2013.
In a 2011 public meeting in Humboldt, Cary Kottler, Clean Lines' project development manager, told The Messenger the company will be purchasing right-of-way permits and vowed to make as small of an impact on Iowa's landscape as possible.
An estimated 5,000 construction jobs will have to be filled when work to build the direct current line gets under way in 2014, with 500 positions being retained permanently.
"We're committed to providing business opportunities across the corridor," Kottler said. Converters are coming from an overseas manufacturer, he said, but all other hardware needs will come from Iowa and Illinois sources.
According to Dr. Harold Prior, executive director of the Iowa Wind Energy Association, there are 55 Iowa counties that are involved in wind energy development in form or another, including manufacturing, service, maintenance and siting.
The line could potentially boost tax revenues, Kottler said, for the counties of O'Brien, Cherokee, Clay, Buena Vista, Hancock, Franklin, Webster, Humboldt, Pocahontas, Palo Alto, Kossuth, Wright, Hamilton, Hardin and Marshall at a stated rate of $7,000 per mile per year.
According to a press release, CLEP will provide enough renewable energy to power approximately 1.4 million homes, result in millions of dollars in local government tax revenue and encourage investment in the wind turbine and transmission supply chain. It estimates up to 2,000 new wind turbines could be erected to feed the needs of the transmission lines.
Conley said the company will utilize two types of power poles for stringing the line from northwest Iowa to Illinois - a monopole and a lattice tower.
"We've heard from landowners that prefer one or the other for different reasons," Conley said. "The monopole has a smaller footprint.
"Some folks think it is easier to turn implements around a monopole and we certainly know that weeds don't grow underneath a monopole. They're a shorter tower, so you also would have to have more poles per mile."
Though they have a larger footprint, Conley said, lattice towers can be farther apart because they can go higher in the air.
"Also you have the possibility of weeds growing up under a lattice structure," Conley said. "We may need lattice structures depending on soil type and how far we need to span."
Overall, DC lines have one-third the footprint of an alternating current line, she said.
A need to move power
Michael Skelly, president of CLEP, said that Midwest wind energy generation grew by 40 percent for each of the past several years, until construction of turbines came to a near halt in 2010.
"There's plenty of wind of there," Skelly said, there's just not an efficient transmission system. "We need to get the harvested wind energy to places that need it." Concerning the 3,500 megawatts of new generation, he added, "This is a significant amount of power."
Detweiler noted that the recent lack of growth of wind energy in the Midwest is due in part to a slow economy, but also to a lack of an efficient transmission method of getting power to urban areas that need it.
In a 2011 interview, John Kramer, president of the Development Corporation of Fort Dodge and Webster County, said he favored the concept of the project.
Kramer said that to expand the Midwest's wind generation capacity, the existing grid system "is not up to this kind of development. The grid system is a limiting aspect of wind farm development."
The project is named because it initially was planned to roughly follow the Rock Island Railroad right of way across the state. In June 2011, CLEP released a map that indicated two basic routes. Neither follow the former railroad trail, covering roughly 500 miles originating in O'Brien County and terminating the Iowa portion at Rock Island, Ill.
Kottler acknowledged that right-of-way agreements will need to be secured along whichever corridor is eventually selected. He said that some condemnation proceedings could be part of the process.
"But that would be our last resort," he said. He explained that condemnation could be used to clean up unclear landownership, or properties locked in probate action.
Joe Sutter, staff writer for The Messenger, contributed to this report.