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Rural electric cooperatives, hydroelectric customers express concerns with Clean Line transmission project

BY PAUL MONIES Published: December 14, 2012

Clean Line said it has assurances from the Energy Department that Southwestern customers will be protected, but that it’s still early in the project. The transmission line isn’t expected to be in service until 2017.

“We’re not at the stage yet where we can show exactly how it’s covered because we don’t have an agreement with the Department of Energy yet for the participation of Southwestern,” said Mario Hurtado, executive vice president of development.

Eminent domain

Coombes said if the federal government approves Clean Line’s project with Southwestern’s participation under Section 1222 of the Energy Policy Act, Southwestern would be the condemnation agent to acquire land for the project under eminent domain.

“If somebody’s taking your land away to build a power line across it that you don’t want or you don’t think you’ve gotten enough money, you have a choice of suing the federal government or Clean Line,” Coombes said. “Any decent lawyer is going to go after the one with the deepest pockets. It’s probably going to be the federal government.”

Clean Line representatives said the company has been upfront with its stakeholders and state and local officials that the project could acquire land using Southwestern’s federal authority. The company said its preference is to gain permission at the local and state level. Clean Line has held hundreds of meetings already with stakeholders along the proposed route.

“This is an inter-regional project that covers three different states,” Hurtado said. “In order for us to really do this in a complete way, and responsibly, it makes sense for us to avail ourselves of this opportunity to have an inter-regional approach to it, and that’s what (Section) 1222 offers.”

Chris Meyers, general manager of the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives, said his group isn’t sure Clean Line’s project fits the intent of the law because it won’t benefit local co-ops. The association’s members purchase some hydroelectric power from Southwestern.

“A direct-current line isn’t going to improve the reliability of the existing grid,” Meyers said. “It seems like it’s really stretching the intent of the law.”

Meyers said he’s not opposed to wind power or Clean Line’s planned transmission project. But the law setting up power marketing administrations says its ratepayers are responsible for costs to upgrade their infrastructure, he said.

“If we are going to do it, we need a clear understanding of the risks,” said Meyers, who wrote a column about the issue in the association’s monthly magazine.

Southwestern officials said that’s also their intent. Clean Line is one of the first companies to build dedicated transmission lines from renewable energy projects in the central United States to utilities across the country. The company has three other high-voltage, direct-current transmission line projects at various stages of development.

“Southwestern will do whatever it needs to make sure our ratepayers won’t be paying for this project,” said Nicki Fuller, a public utility specialist for Southwestern. “It’s a groundbreaker, so I think we all just need a little more clarification.”

Southwestern has 1,380 miles of transmission lines and serves customers in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Louisiana and Texas.

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