Oklahoma's earthquake problem has cast a pall over its oil and gas industry, but there is a bright spot in the energy picture. The local wind industry is set for boom times as pre-planning moves forward on the Plains and Eastern Clean Line, a 4,000 megawatt transmission line that will bring power from Oklahoma wind farms to points east.
In the latest development, global clean energy leader GE has signed on to provide an important element that will help ensure that the wind-powered electricity can compete on cost with fossil fuels.
Wind power to compete with fossil fuels
GE will be providing three converter stations to the project. Their task is to convert the AC current from wind farms into DC current, then back to AC for pickup by local grid operators.
If that sounds like a lot of work for nothing, it's not. Long distance, high voltage transmission lines operate much more efficiently when carrying DC current.
Even though the three converter stations add up-from costs to the project, the result will be a long term savings in the cost of wind energy. In a conversation with me last week, Andrew Goodman, the Plains & Eastern project manager for GE, anticipated that the cost of electricity from the new transmission line would be competitive with fossil fuel costs.
So, why the whole AC-DC thing? As explained by the Department of Energy, DC (short for direct current, because it runs in a single direction) was the original form of electricity developed by Edison. By default, DC was the standard form in the earliest days of electricity.
Sooner or later a competing variety was bound to come along, and it did. Tesla (the inventor, not the auto maker), came up with AC -- alternating current -- which lends itself more easily for conversion to higher or lower voltages.
On an interesting historical note, the "current war" timeline includes this tidbit about the competition between Edison and Tesla, as demonstrated by the 1893 Chicago World's Fair:
General Electric bid to electrify the fair using Edison’s direct current for $554,000, but lost to George Westinghouse, who said he could power the fair for only $399,000 using Tesla’s alternating current.
GE soon jumped on board the AC train, and AC has remained the current of choice in the U.S. almost to the present day.
That's "almost," because solar cells, electric vehicles, LEDs and other new clean technology are designed to run on DC current.
And now, as the Energy Department points out, things have come full circle:
...methods are now available for converting direct current to higher and lower voltages. Since direct current is more stable, companies are finding ways of using high voltage direct current (HVDC) to transport electricity long distances with less electricity loss.
so DC is back in business.
Oklahoma cheers for wind power, boos for earthquakes
Clean Line Energy is the company behind the new transmission line and several others in the planning stages. When it announced that GE had joined the Plains & Eastern project on November 1, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin had this to say:
"We are excited to see GE, the world's premier digital industrial company, working with Clean Line Energy on a transmission line that will harness and export Oklahoma's great wind resource...Our Oklahoma First Energy Plan advocates an all -of-the-above energy strategy, and we are proud to see GE once again involved in an effort that will ensure Oklahoma continues to be a leader in all energy production for decades to come."
Barely a week later, Governor Fallin has had her hands full, dealing with the aftermath of a major 5.0 earthquake that struck on November 6 in the city of Cushing, which happens to be home to one of the largest oil pipeline hubs in the world.
Seismologists have not yet weighed in with a verdict, but given the state's recent earthquake history, early reports are already linking the temblor to the practice of disposing wastewater from oil and gas operations into wells.
In fact, evidence of the linkage is so strong that Governor Fallin accepted it as fact last year and began requesting voluntary mitigation measures from disposal well operators.
That looks like a case of too little, too late. The earthquake has activity continued apace this year, despite a series of additional measures overseen by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, the agency that regulates disposal wells.
The OCC has not waited around for confirmation for the cause of this latest earthquake. On November 8, the agency announced an action plan covering 58 disposal wells in the region.
Some of the wells were already shut down under previous actions, including one in 2015 and 15 that were shut down in September in response to a 5.3 earthquake near the City of Pawnee.
Of the remaining wells, all located within six miles of the epicenter of the quake have been ordered to cease operations immediately. The remaining wells, located up to 15 miles away, have been ordered to sharply reduce disposal volumes by next week.
The agency has also warned that "that this plan is an initial response, and operators are being warned that work is underway on a broader plan that will encompass a greater area and more Arbuckle disposal wells."
OCC expects to announce the more comprehensive plan in a few weeks, so stay tuned for that.
Image (screenshot): via Clean Line Energy.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.