Transmission buildout completed; ATC invests in developer; Stepp heading EPA region; Market changes pondered; Duke, others, exiting nuke projects

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Transmission buildout completed

The upper Midwest transmission grid’s biggest expansion in four decades was completed this summer with the final segment of CapX2020, a 70-mile, 345-kilovolt line between Big Stone City and Brookings, South Dakota, energized at the end of August.

First announced in June 2006, CapX2020 (for “capacity expansion needed by 2020”) includes nearly 800 miles of new transmission lines spanning Minnesota and making new connections to Wisconsin and the Dakotas. The Wisconsin connection is a 150-mile, 345-kilovolt line between the southeast Twin Cities; Rochester, Minnesota; and La Crosse. That segment was energized last September.

Overall project costs were estimated at about $2 billion. A key CapX2020 focus has been to open new paths for moving wind and solar energy across the upper Midwest in response to state renewable energy mandates, as well as reducing regional transmission congestion.

The joint initiative involves 11 entities, including Dairyland Power Cooperative, WPPI Energy, and Xcel Energy, along with several cooperative and municipal utilities serving Minnesota and the Dakotas.

ATC invests in Canadian transmission developer

The American Transmission Company’s ATC Development has invested capital and joined the board of directors of Toronto-based oneGRID, an independent transmission developer with projects in North and South America specializing in high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission.

ATC Development Company is a separate branch of Waukesha-based ATC, formed by its investor-owned utility members. Several Wisconsin electric cooperatives have an ownership interest in ATC, which builds, owns, and operates the transmission grid serving some two dozen investor-owned, cooperative, and municipal utilities, nearly all in Wisconsin.

The companies say HVDC transmission offers reduced line loss and strengthens grid reliability and power flow control, as well as the ability to connect asynchronous or out-of-phase systems. About 200 HVDC projects are currently active on six continents, they said.

Stepp now heading EPA region

Cathy Stepp, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) since 2011, has vacated that position to become principal deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Region 7, headquartered in Lenexa, Kansas.

Pending the appointment of a permanent administrator, Stepp will at least temporarily be the highest-ranking EPA official in the four-state region covering Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri.

A former homebuilder and Wisconsin State Senator representing the Racine area, Stepp served three years on the Natural Resources Board as a 1998 appointee of then-Governor Tommy Thompson. She had been the only person to serve as DNR secretary during the Walker administration. Deputy Secretary and agency veteran Kurt Thiede was named interim secretary upon Stepp’s departure.

Power market changes pondered

Federal regulators will consider altering wholesale electricity market rules to better recognize the role of baseload—essentially, coal and nuclear—generation facilities in maintaining grid reliability, according to the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

In testimony prepared for a September congressional hearing (cancelled due to hurricane-related schedule changes), FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee wrote that when the continued operation of baseload generators comes into question because of economic factors, they may need to be compensated differently than under existing market rules.

Chatterjee’s statement comes as some states have begun and others are considering subsidies for economically challenged nuclear plants, to retain them as sources of large-capacity, emission-free generation and grid stability.

Duke, others, exiting nuke projects

The U.S. nuclear power industry, shaken by construction delays, early plant retirements, and competition from inexpensive natural gas, got more bad news at the end of August when North Carolina-based Duke Energy said it’s pulling out of new power plant projects in South Carolina and Florida.

Duke’s withdrawals came soon after the bankruptcy of Westinghouse Electric, a major contractor in nuclear plant construction. Westinghouse said it would no longer build reactors in the United States, where 99 such facilities remain in commercial operation.

The moves also closely followed the co-owners of an existing South Carolina plant halting construction activity on a planned expansion.

Separately, in September, just days after Duke’s decisions were announced, Dominion Energy disclosed it was suspending further development of an expansion plan at its North Anna plant in Virginia, a project for which the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission had issued a construction and operating license this spring.

That license gives Dominion a 20-year window to move ahead with development of the new reactor, but a decision to go ahead would presumably hinge on whether a new nuclear plant with its very high up-front costs could compete economically with natural gas-fired facilities. Abundant natural gas supplies add up to a competitive advantage in today’s wholesale power markets that has been a major factor in early retirements of nuclear plants—well before their operating licenses would have expired—in recent years.

With other nations expanding emissions-free nuclear generation, the only new nuclear project still underway in this country is the addition of two new reactors at an existing Georgia plant co-owned by Oglethorpe Power Cooperative and the Atlanta-based Southern Company. That project is over budget and thought unlikely to see completion before 2023.

A recent New York Times story quoted Nuclear Energy Institute CEO Maria Korsnick saying, “We are in dire circumstances right now.”

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