A Texas company that wants to build a $3.5 billion transmission system to move wind turbine energy east from the Oklahoma Panhandle region will be required make plans for the project public and provide progress reports after being granted public utility status on Friday.
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission voted to grant the status to Clean Lines Energy of Houston, which still is working to gain full regulatory approval for the privately financed project that the commission's general counsel, Andrew Tevington, said will not cost Oklahoma ratepayers.
The commission's order does not give Clean Lines the power of eminent domain as it seeks to acquire rights of way for the transmission line's towers. Tevington told commissioners that the company had reached private agreements with property owner groups and that any eminent domain issue involving the project must be settled in court.
"That matter is clearly within the hands of the district courts," Tevington said.
Mario Hurtado, executive vice president of development for Clean Lines, said the project represents "a significant investment" in wind energy development in a region that already has a rich legacy in oil and natural gas production. The system would transmit electricity to Tennessee from turbines in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles as well as southwestern Kansas.
Clean Lines still is working to gain regulatory approval for the project in Arkansas and Tennessee, Hurtado said. He said the route for the project has not been chosen but that the company tentatively plans to begin construction in 2014. If all goes as planned, wind-generated electricity should be available to customers in Arkansas, the Tennessee Valley Authority and other markets in the southeastern U.S. by 2017, he said.
"Building one of these projects takes several years," Hurtado said.
Whitney Pearson of the Sierra Club said the project advances the environmental group's goal of using clean, renewable resources to generate energy instead of fossil fuels, including coal.
"We believe Clean Lines has done a great job," Pearson said.
Vicki Ayers-McCune, the Panhandle's regional economic director, said the project will pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the region, creating new jobs and producing additional tax revenue to support local schools and public infrastructure.
"This is very exciting for the Panhandle region. We need a lifeline for the future," McCune said.
Phil Albert, president of Pelco Structural LLC of Claremore, which will assemble the transmission line's towers, said the project will require $300 million in materials and will double Pelco's workforce of 114.
"For our business it's a game-changer," Albert said. "Wind is not a northwest Oklahoma issue. It's a statewide issue."
Corporation Commissioner Bob Anthony said the project could involve more than wind energy thanks to new technology that permits natural gas-generated energy to quickly come on line and keep the transmission lines at capacity when the wind is not blowing.
"In terms of new jobs, infrastructure investment and the future of electricity generation using both wind and natural gas, Oklahoma can receive multi-billion dollar economic benefits from the development of this electric transmission line," Anthony said.
Corporation Commissioner Dana Murphy said evidence developed during the commission's research on the project indicates it will have an economic impact on the state of more than $4 billion.
"Good wages will be available from construction jobs as the power line is built, and more wages will be paid to Oklahomans for the permanent jobs needed to operate the line and its related facilities," Murphy said.