Superpower: One Man's Quest to Transform American Energy

By Barry, Kenneth A. | Energy Law Journal, July 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

Superpower: One Man's Quest to Transform American Energy


Barry, Kenneth A., Energy Law Journal


SUPERPOWER: ONE MAN'S QUEST TO TRANSFORM AMERICAN ENERGY

By Russell Gold

Reviewed by Kenneth A. Barry·

I.introduction

A book rarely comes along that delves so deeply into the engineering and business intricacies of transmission expansion and wind generation, yet reads so like a novel. This is the remarkable achievement of Russell Gold's Superpower: One Man 's Quest to Transform American Energy}

Gold, a senior energy reporter with the Wall Street Journal, has painstakingly researched the origins and evolution of the U.S. grid in general and wind power in particular, along with the personal journeys of a colorful cast of characters animating the story. Gold's focus, while sometimes expanding to national efforts to develop promising wind resources, wherever they are found in America, centers on the Oklahoma panhandle region. Solar energy also figures in the mix at times, but the aspirations of wind developers and the institutional challenges they face comprise the essence of Gold's narrative.2

The "one man" in the book's title is the enterprising, nearly indefatigable, Michael Skelly. An infrastructure project developer who clearly relishes a challenge, Skelly first met true believers in the energy potential of three "big and windy and sunny" western Oklahoma counties in 2009. He left with a vision of developing a "720-mile electricity expressway" capable of carrying 4000 MW of renewable energy east to a terminus near Memphis (tying into the TVA system). The details of scaling the often slippery slopes of numerous impediments - financial, technical, regulatory, and political - to achieve the ambitious goals of Clean Line Energy Partners, as Skelly's company was called, become the grist for the tale.3

Though he tucks in a good deal of technical information about transmission facilities and wind farm development (told in a manner appealing to the lay reader), Gold puts equal emphasis on the human side of the equation. The triumphs and travails experienced by Skelly and his associates serve as a constant reminder that progress depends on exceptional individuals willing to incur daunting risks - and take their lumps along the way.

II. THE TECHNOLOGY

Skelly turned to direct current (DC) technology to realize his vision of conveying abundant wind and solar energy from Oklahoma to eastern load centers. This "expressway" transmission design leads Gold to an interesting digression on historic precedents for incorporating DC technology in long-line projects. The reader learns, for example, that in the 1950s and 60s a kind of "arms race" developed in which both the Soviet Union and the United States competed, within their respective countries, to build the longest and highest-capacity DC lines ever, as a bold demonstration of their engineering prowess. Stepping back further in time, we also learn about early 20th century grid pioneers who urged that the localized nature of the first power generation/distribution systems had to give way to much longer, higher capacity power lines that could link up local systems and provide access to distant, more economical generation sources (as well as reduce the redundancy requirements for generation units). The term "Superpower" in the title of Gold's book echoes the title of W. S. Murray's 1925 proposal for a "giant grid" that would allow existing, essentially local networks to be superseded by larger and more efficient regional power plants.4

The book also chronicles the remarkable strides in cost-effectiveness of wind generation technology that paralleled Skelly's nearly decade-long campaign to build Clean Line's showpiece DC line from the Oklahoma panhandle to Tennessee as well as four other embryonic DC projects.5 With larger and more efficient turbine designs being continually introduced, Skelly was able to lower his price offers to potential customers: from an initial proposal in the $70/MWh range (delivered) to prices falling to and eventually below the $30/MWh range. …

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