Photo by: John R. Boehm
For most of his 20-year career, Hans Detweiler lobbied state and federal officials to boost wind farms in the Midwest, but a couple of years ago he concluded he could make a bigger impact as a businessman than as a policy advocate.
The former lobbyist for both the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center and the American Wind Energy Association in Washington is championing a multiyear effort to build a $1.7 billion, 500-mile high-voltage power line to connect northwest Iowa, one of the windiest spots in the U.S., to Chicago, the Midwest’s biggest energy consumer.
If he’s successful—and the hurdle is mighty high—the 42-year-old with a political science degree from Grinnell College in Iowa will accomplish two tasks: He will make the composition of Chicago’s electricity cleaner while lowering local electric bills.
The promise for Iowa farmers and Chicago-area consumers alike is up to 4,000 megawatts of wind energy funneled into and through the Chicago area. That’s double the amount from farms developed in Illinois over the past decade, most coming after the 2007 enactment of a state law pushed by Mr. Detweiler and others requiring utilities to purchase an escalating percentage of renewable energy.
“We’re very comfortable the project will occur,” Mr. Detweiler says. “We think the stars align in 2017.”
But the proposed Rock Island Clean Line won’t go anywhere unless he can secure enough customers upfront. Unlike most transmission lines, which are built only after regulators agree to force ratepayers to finance them through higher electric bills, Clean Line is a “merchant” project, which means it would be privately financed.
In the Midwest and mid-Atlantic power grid traversing all or parts of 13 states, including northern Illinois, just two transmission lines have been built using this financing method, both of them in northern New Jersey, according to a power grid spokesman.
Also, today’s rock-bottom wholesale power prices, in the low $30s per megawatt-hour, are too low to make the project economic. Mr. Detweiler expects that in five years, when he hopes the line will be built, prices will be modestly higher. He says, given how strong the wind blows in northwest Iowa, $45 per megawatt-hour would be sufficient.
ON THE ROAD
For now, Mr. Detweiler, the project’s director of development, is earning upgrades from his frequent car rentals to drive from his home in Chicago to Iowa and parts of Illinois. Since he began promoting the project in January 2010, he figures he has presided over or attended more than 600 meetings. “We’ve served several thousand pulled-pork sandwiches,” he jokes.
The line, one of four transmission lines around the country being pursued by Houston-based Clean Line Energy Partners, needs approval from Iowa and Illinois regulators, who must endorse its path, and federal regulators, who must give permission to the developer to negotiate rates with end-use customers. A federal decision is expected soon, but the state rulings will take as long as two years.
The high-voltage power cord would originate in O’Brien County, Iowa, about 200 miles northwest of Des Moines. Locals want it, says Rodd Holtkamp, vice president of Savings Bank in Primghar, Iowa, which lends to the farmers in the area. “We’re sitting in some of the best wind resources in the entire U.S.,” he says. “We can build these turbines, but we can’t get on the grid and get the juice out of here.”
Clean Line would harm the financial interests of Illinois’ biggest power generator, Chicago-based Exelon Corp., whose profit margins would suffer at its six nuclear plants in the state from lower prices here. Exelon is proposing a transmission line of its own, the $1.6 billion, 420-mile Rite Line, which would connect Chicago’s power grid to the East, where power prices are higher. But, unlike Clean Line, Exelon is seeking federal approval to finance the project through electric bills.
In a statement, Exelon doesn’t say it supports or opposes Clean Line but makes clear its misgivings: “Illinois already benefits from an oversupply of inexpensive power. . . . We believe any additional power coming into Illinois from planned wind projects in the upper Midwest can and should be moved eastward for reliability reasons, which will not unduly impact Illinois power prices.”
In the meantime, Mr. Detweiler is winning support from other quarters. On May 8, Grundy County struck a deal with Clean Line under which the developer will pay about $2.8 million over 20 years in lieu of property taxes, the same arrangement Iowa requires of transmission developers but Illinois does not. Grundy County would be the line’s eastern terminus, about 65 miles southwest of the Loop.