Midwest Plan Offers Rail Power Potential

Midwest Plan Offers Rail Power Potential

"If the needs match up, then it will get done."

Dale Osborn helped get the sizzling notion of electrified freight railroading before some of the Obama administration’s top planners on energy and environmental issues.

Osborn is transmission planning technical director for a nonprofit organization in the electrical power line business Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator, otherwise known as Midwest ISO or MISO. It is based in Carmel, Ind., and he is in its St. Paul, Minn., office.

MISO’s role is to help utilities or transmission line builders fit their local project ideas into larger regional needs and national policy, and help manage the power flowing through the electrical grid.

It is just one of several such regional coordinating entities; its territory ranges into 15 states and Canada’s Manitoba province.

This is a special moment in history for groups like MISO, as the nation is shaping plans for massive investments in new power lines to upgrade the creaky grid and to shift toward more clean-energy sources. But new power corridors take years to get permit approvals, much less build, which adds cost and precious time.

So when one of MISO’s stakeholder companies passed on an idea about moving faster and more cheaply by putting new transmission lines in freight railroad corridors, Osborn was intrigued enough to push the idea far up the channels of policymakers.

“A couple of railroads actually approached us,” he said, about leasing rights of way to power lines in Iowa and Michigan as a new source of revenue in these hard times of plunging freight traffic. “One was last fall and the other was this spring,” he told The Journal of Commerce.

MISO took the idea further, figuring if at least two railroads were willing perhaps other will be. It began sketching plans for a big, interstate corridor of new power lines in freight rail rights of way across its entire territory, from South Dakota into Pennsylvania.

The concept is “something we’re starting to pursue,” said Osborn. He cautioned that the idea is “not fully cooked, but we like its potential.”

At a March 2 energy conference in Washington, he mentioned it to Jon Wellinghoff, who heads the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that oversees power line issues. Wellinghoff liked it so much that he suggested it to President Obama’s “czar” for energy and climate issues, Carol Browner.

Osborn and Wellinghoff both saw the concept as about building power lines more easily, but said the railroads involved might also tap into that power stream next to their tracks to begin switching their locomotive fleets from diesel burn to electric.

The vision is that the electricity piped through the corridors would come from wind farms, so when railroads draw power off the grid they would use a clean source as long as the turbine blades keep turning. Other environmental benefits would be quieter freight trains, and a sharp drop in diesel particulate emissions from railroads.

Railroads did something similar with their ROW years ago, by letting fiber optic networks bury cable next to the tracks and thereby helping fuel an explosive advance of telecommunications capacity.

Power lines — either buried direct current cables or overhead alternating current lines with their many supporting towers — would pose lots of different challenges to the rail corridors, and no U.S. freight rail line has run on electricity in decades.

But if railroads buy in, transmission line builders would be dealing with willing corridor providers rather than fighting local resistance to new paths or using imminent domain powers. Rails, meanwhile, could collect cash lease payments or look for ways to tap the electricity for their own needs, as some already do with fiber capacity.

And if they opt to transition their locomotive fleets to electrical power, rail use of diesel fuel and associated carbon emissions could plunge.

No one right now thinks the entire freight rail system will be able to switch off diesel and onto electricity, or that electric freight trains are about to start running.

The MISO planners have not said which carriers they are talking with, though the list could include short lines as well as long-haul railroads. BNSF Railway is already talking to some power line builders, but Chairman, President and CEO Matthew K. Rose said BSNF Railway is not involved in the Iowa discussions.

At MISO, “this is just in the early stages,” Osborn said. If the plan takes off, he said, “I think it would probably take a couple of years to put the package together . . . Right now we’re trying to get the people who are instrumental in building the lines involved.”

MISO officials also said even in rail corridors the projects would have permitting issues, as a long stretch of high metal towers and electrical lines would have environmental impacts beyond what communities get from train operations alone. Buried DC cables may have less impact, but present special challenges if railroads wanted to tap them to power their trains.

Yet Osborn said there is clearly interest in it, as various national policy and economic needs come together. “If the needs match up,” he said, “then it will get done.”

Contact John D. Boyd at jboyd@joc.com.

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