Connecting Midwest Renewables to the Eastern Power Grid
Like most military brats, Brian Williams grew up in a household with a strong tradition of service. His father, a Master Sergeant with the U.S. Air Force who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, managed construction projects on military bases. His mom, a civil servant, worked for the Department of Defense and the U.S. State Department.
And like most military kids, Williams struggles with the question, “Where are you from?” In his mind, he was “from a lot of places,” but mostly towns and military bases in Ohio and the Upper Midwest where he spent his formative years.
Many of those early towns, he remembers, had more trees than people. The forests and surrounding farmlands became his natural playground, imbuing him with a great love for the outdoors and a deep, abiding respect for the land.
Today, as a senior project manager for the SOO Green HVDC Link transmission project, Williams is continuing his family’s tradition of service by helping the U.S. build critical infrastructure for the 21st century.
SOO Green HVDC, currently in its approval phase, will transmit renewable energy underground along a 350-mile route from wind farms in Iowa to electricity demand centers in Illinois. It will link the grid operations of two of the nation’s largest regional transmission organizations — Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) in the Midwest, with PJM Interconnection in the East.
SOO Green will transmit its 2,000 megawatts of power via high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines buried along existing railroad rights of way, an approach similar to the model used to build America’s fiber optic network.
As an employee of Jingoli Power, SOO Green’s primary engineering and construction consultant, Williams is helping guide the project from concept to construction, aiding primarily with its siting and regulatory phases.
“With this project, we’re trying to expand the supply of quality sustainable energy sources while minimizing the environmental disruption and visual impact to landowners,” he said. “Anyone who’s done work in transmission distribution infrastructure knows that landowners are passionate about their land … and you have to respect that.”
Following the Science
As a kid, Williams fell in love with science, a career path that gained momentum through junior high and high school with encouragement from his parents. So it came as no surprise to his family when he matriculated at Ohio State University, then earned a bachelor’s degree in natural resources in 1993.
During his college summers, Williams also got his first real exposure to construction work. As a laborer for several construction companies involved in building low-income housing and small commercial buildings, he learned to appreciate what it takes to build something from the ground up.
“When you've spread dirt and shoveled for hours and hours building something, you gain respect and an understanding of what it takes to build something,” he reflects.
Catching the Energy Bug
After college, Williams solidified his interest in the construction field working for Columbus, Ohio-based Bischoff Miller & Associates, an architectural engineering firm that specialized in wastewater treatment facilities. But it was at his future job, working as a senior environmental coordinator for Des Moines, Iowa-based MidAmerican Energy Company, that he officially caught the transmission and distribution (T&D) bug.
While working for MidAmerican, Williams also fortified his education, earning a Master of Science degree in occupational safety management from Columbia Southern University.
During his next few jobs, first with Kenny Construction Company (now owned by Granite Construction) and later with CH2M Hill (now owned by Jacobs Engineering), Williams honed his skills in T&D project management. He joined Jingoli Power in 2015.
Putting Safety First
Today, it’s full steam ahead for Williams as he guides the critical planning phases of the SOO Green HVDC Link project.
Collocating the project along an active transportation corridor — ninety percent of the SOO Green route follows Canadian Pacific railways; the remaining 10 percent lies within U.S. Department of Transportation rights of way — is both innovative and risky.
“Safety is paramount,” said Williams. “We have to ensure that none of our workmen or activities are operating too close to the tracks when a train passes.”
The technology of digging trenches has not changed much over the years, he added, but the latest Crosslinked Polyethylene (XLPE) transmission cable being used makes a fundamental difference.
“Ten to 15 years ago, we could not have buried this transmission line cost effectively,” said Williams. “Advancements in XLPE cable — the maximum capacity per line has grown from approximately 320 Kilovolts (kV) 10 years ago to a current capacity of about 525 kV —allow us to carry much more power per line, which largely offsets the costs of putting the lines underground.”
And while running conductor cable underground eliminates the visual eyesore of overhead transmission lines, it also reduces the need to clear wide swaths of land and eliminates threats to migratory birds, bats or native plants, he added.
Breaking the Bottleneck
Williams is perhaps most excited about what the SOO Green HVDC Link will mean for renewable energy, and for current and future wind farms in the Upper Midwest.
“Today, many of the wind farms in the MISO territory cannot operate at full capacity because there’s insufficient transmission capacity to ship out their renewable energy,” he said. “SOO Green will create a transmission tollway that will effectively break this bottleneck and allow additional renewable energy projects to be created in the Upper Midwest.”
The project expects to begin construction in Q1 2022 and begin operating in late 2024, he added.
Staying in Touch
Williams, a father of two teenagers, splits his professional time between a home office in Aurora, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, and working in the field along the SOO Green project corridor.
Since joining Jingoli Power, he does not miss his former days as a frequent air traveler. Instead, he now commutes by car — usually two hours or less — to regular meetings in Iowa with investors, teams involved in environmental studies, and local regulatory agencies.
Through it all, he is guided by a simple philosophy: to remain open minded. As a seasoned professional, he has seen his share of whimsical and seemingly unachievable infrastructure projects come to pass.
“A lot of (infrastructure) projects come my way, and a lot of them can seem a bit unrealistic at first,” he said, “but I try not to shoot anything down, just take each one piece by piece.”
Serving the Future
As for the SOO Green HVDC Link project, Williams is optimistic about its potential to help guarantee a reliable electric grid and a resilient future for the U.S.
“SOO Green is an infrastructure project that will benefit everybody,” he said. “It will bring good union jobs, provide avenues for future growth, and help guarantee a strong, sustainable energy future for the country. That’s a pretty good outcome for all parties concerned.”
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