By Tom Kleckner
HOUSTON — It wasn’t too long ago that Michael Skelly was at the forefront of an effort to develop long-haul transmission lines to ship power from remote wind farms in SPP to urban centers to the east.
Skelly’s Clean Line Energy Partners, which he founded and led, was developing five projects capable of carrying 16.5 GW of energy. The future seemed bright.
“We thought transmission was going to be the linchpin of expanding wind energy,” Skelly said. (See Unfazed by Obstacles, Clean Line’s Skelly Focuses on Future.)
He’s now on the outside looking in. Clean Line has sold off its projects, its employee count is down to zero, and Skelly has taken a senior adviser role for Lazard Asset Management.
Asked how he is doing during a panel discussion at the American Wind Energy Association’s WINDPOWER 2019 conference this month, Skelly responded, “I’m very happy.”
But Skelly exhibited new regrets over his failure to complete a long-haul, high-voltage project. He’s said Clean Line wasn’t able to “win the World Cup of transmission,” but that’s not to say someone else won’t.
“Hopefully, the second mouse gets the cheese in the transmission world,” he said, using the proposed $2.6 billion, 1.5-GW Cape Wind offshore site off Massachusetts as an example. Cape Wind was abandoned in 2017, but developers expect the nation’s 30 GW of offshore capacity to exceed 2 GW by 2030. Another 25 GW sits in the development pipeline.
“Transmission is super hard. We’re not really in the mood right now to do these giant projects in the United States,” Skelly said. “These things change. We’ll look back in 100 years. There’ll be times we didn’t do a lot of infrastructure; there are times we did a lot of infrastructure. Hopefully, the country will be in a better mood and ready to do these big-bone transmission projects.”
Coincidentally, Pattern Energy CEO Michael Garland sat at the other end of the panel. Pattern last year bought Clean Line’s interests in the Mesa Canyons Wind Farm and Western Spirit Clean Line projects in New Mexico. It has already reached a $285 million agreement with PNM Resources to sell Western Spirit once it’s completed in 2021.
“They’ve pushed forward with development,” Skelly said of Pattern. “Clearly it’s a new model, and that’s exciting.”
Clean Line sold another of its projects, the Grain Belt Express in the Upper Midwest, to Invenergy, contingent upon approval from Missouri regulators. The Public Service Commission has already approved the line after several earlier failed attempts and is now deliberating the sale.
The state’s most recent legislative session ended without eminent domain legislation, another positive for the $2.3 billion, 780-mile project that would connect Kansas’ bountiful wind energy with population centers on the other side of the Mississippi River.
“It’s survived several attempts to kill it,” Skelly said.
NextEra Energy Resources has acquired Clean Line’s Plains & Eastern Clean Line assets in Oklahoma. The Rock Island Clean Line was killed by Iowa legislation that made above-ground HVDC transmission projects illegal, Skelly has said.
Still, he remains optimistic about the wind energy business, pointing to decreasing costs and increased hunger for renewable energy.
“There’s a huge supply chain of service folks that really know how to do these things, and that will help us to be more flexible,” Skelly said. “There’s a bunch of states now that want 100% renewable energy. I think we’re on a great path, and for the younger folks just getting started in the industry, it’s going to be interesting.”