The fight against climate change can often seem like an uphill trudge through slippery mud. Two steps forward and one step back. But while progress can often seem painfully slow, we can lose track of the utterly remarkable progress the US—and indeed the World—has made in advancing renewable energy. The last two decades have seen a historic shift in the role these energy sources play, and the transformation away from dirty energy, despite often hostile political headwinds, is in full swing.
The journey from where we began to where we are now is quite a story, and a new book by author Russel Gold (whose coverage of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill tragedy won the Gerald Loeb Award and made him a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) tells it colorfully and well in his new book Superpower, One Man’s Quest to Transform American Energy. The book tells the story of progress through the lens of trailblazing visionary Michael Skelly, whose key insight was that to transform the way we produce energy would require a major change in the way we transport it to communities, businesses and industries.
Skelly envisioned a power grid that linked far-flung sources of high-quality wind energy to population centers hundreds of miles away, replacing climate-damaging fossil fuels. He was an early prophet that this could be done, and he believed it could be done profitably. Though he knew this was no task for the faint-hearted (developing a large transmission project as part of an interconnected grid has huge political and economic hurdles and carries a multi-billion-dollar price tag) he set out to make it happen. Inspired by the wind resource on the perpetually blustery Oklahoma panhandle, he imagined a transmission link to carry this clean energy across the southern plains to Tennessee, and from there to markets in the coal dependent southeast. “If you agree with the thesis that renewable energy is getting cheaper and cheaper and cheaper, which we agree with and have seen,” Skelly said, “then the Challenge becomes how do we get it to market.”
Through a succession of ventures, Skelly built both his expertise and financial contacts, eventually forming Clean Line Energy Partners to execute a vision to transform America’s energy system.
Under Skelly, Clean Line Energy Partners planned direct current (DC) transmission links in the southern plains, Midwest, and Southwest. Their struggles included facing intense local opposition in some places and negotiating a complex web of balkanized state approval processes across the paths of these projects.
Skelly was encountering the very problems NRDC had been organizing to solve at the same time: by promoting renewable energy zones and transmission right of way siting that avoided as many environmental conflicts as possible and interconnecting the best renewable resources available as quickly as possible. NRDC worked with allies, states and the Obama administration to expedite renewable transmission by coordinating environmental reviews. Our work overlapped Clean Line's very significantly, and Clean Line’s focus on building transmission for renewables helped reduce opposition in some quarters.
Speaking for myself, Skelly’s work was inspirational; an example of what an enlightened vision coupled with tenacious advocacy could do. When I first got involved with transmission work in the mid-2000s—and soon thereafter met Skelly—it was a lonely place for an environmental advocate to be. Nobody likes transmission, though we did find that many environmental colleagues went out of their way to help if the transmission was for renewable energy. Along the way one Skelly alumnus, Julia Prochnik, joined NRDC, working to help us improve transmission planning for projects like Skelly’s. Clean Line’s environmentally focused business plan was soon copied by other developers.
Unfortunately, the Clean Line story did not have a Hollywood happy ending. Unable to overcome political challenges at the national and state levels from nuclear boosters in the US Senate (including Lamar Alexander of Tennessee) and parochially-focused state legislators in Missouri and Arkansas –which scared off investors—by 2017 Clean Line was forced to sell off projects that still had a chance of making it to the finish line.
Skelly and Clean Line’s legacy is not a story of failure however. New advocates for long distance DC lines, perhaps even linking the asynchronous Eastern and Western Interconnects have stepped forward. Renewable energy companies have purchased Clean Line’s projects and are continuing to push them to completion.
Leadership, as Gold’s book points out, does not always get rewarded. But leaders are essential for showing that what conventional knowledge may think is impossible needn’t be, and a better future can not only be imagined, it can be made a reality.
Superpower, One Man’s Quest to Transform American Energy, by Russel Gold, forthcoming this summer from Simon and Schuster.