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How America’s biggest renewable-energy power line failed

Photo of windmills and power lines
Power lines and wind turbines, Germany. Photo: Jens Kalaene/picture alliance/Getty

America was “tantalizingly” close to building what would have amounted to a superhighway power line sending renewable energy across the country, but local opposition, government delay and utility disinterest killed it.

What's happening: In "Superpower: One Man's Quest to Transform American Energy" (just out today), WSJ reporter Russell Gold documents in excruciating detail the reality of just how hard it is to build big infrastructure projects in the United States.

What’s more, this 700-mile-long power line was for something that ostensibly has a lot of support: renewable energy.

The big picture: The book is part biography of entrepreneur Michael Skelly — whose now-shuttered firm tried to build the power line — part historical record on electricity, and part lesson in trying big things against myriad obstacles.

Skelly’s firm, Clean Line Energy Partners, was founded in 2009 to move wind power from Oklahoma to Tennessee, but folded in 2017 after legal, political and bureaucratic obstacles mounted, including:

  • A slow start on federal review at the Energy Department under then-President Obama.
  • Lawsuits and legislation from lawmakers and residents in Arkansas, which the line would pass through, and Tennessee.
  • Mixed messages but ultimately no interest from Tennessee Valley Authority, a government-owned utility, to buy the wind power.
  • A lack of support, despite President Trump listing it as an infrastructure priority.

Between the lines: While covered regularly in trade publications, the power line didn’t garner many national headlines.

  • Much of the media — myself included! — were focused far more on another big project that failed for some of the same reasons: The Keystone XL Pipeline, a Canada–U.S. oil pipeline under review from 2008 until 2015 when Obama rejected it. (Trump wants to revive it, but legal and other hurdles remain.)
  • Experts say big power lines moving renewable energy — akin to our highway system — will be essential to really expand variable wind and solar.

What’s next: Gold wonders if Skelly and his team “will turn out to have blazed a trail that others can follow. The second mouse gets the cheese, as the saying goes. What is usually left unsaid is that the first mouse gets the trap.”

  • Gold references Cape Wind, a similar story about a 16-year attempt to build America’s first offshore wind farm. It finally faded in 2017, just as what actually ended up being the first one began operating.

Go deeper: Read an excerpt in the WSJ.

Cover of Superpower by Russell Gold