Updated: Jan 12, 2021
Jingoli Power’s Brian Williams guides plans to deliver innovation and Midwest renewables underground to the Eastern power grid.
If you love the idea of using renewable energy to power the electric grid but resist the idea of building overhead transmission lines to bring that power to local markets, Brian Williams has good news for you on both fronts.
Expanding Supply, Reducing Impact
Williams is the senior project manager for the SOO Green HVDC Link, 350-mile underground transmission line that will bring energy generated by wind farms in Iowa to electricity demand centers in Illinois.
The transmission infrastructure will link the grid operations of two of the nation’s largest regional transmission organizations (RTO) — Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) in the Midwest and PJM Interconnection in the East.
William actually works for Jingoli Power, an investor in the project and SOO Green’s primary engineering and construction consultant. But he’s been asked to help guide the project from concept to construction, aiding primarily with the siting and regulatory phases.
“SOO Green will expand the supply of quality sustainable energy sources while minimizing the environmental disruption and visual impact to landowners,” he explained. “Anyone who’s done work in transmission and distribution infrastructure knows that landowners are passionate about the potential visual impact of overhead transmission lines … and you have to respect that.”
Mindful of landowner concerns, Williams added, SOO Green will transmit its 2,000 megawatts of power underground using high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines buried along existing railroad rights of way, an approach first used to build America’s fiber optic network.
Serving the Environment
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.
Ask Williams where he’s from, and you’ll get a slight grimace as he struggles with the answer. 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. And many of those towns, he remembers, had more trees than people. The forests and surrounding farmlands became his natural playground, instilling him with a great love for the outdoors and a deep and abiding respect for the land.
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 a surprise to no one when he pursued a bachelor’s degree in a natural resources at Ohio State University. He completed that degree in 1993.
During his college summers, Williams also got his first real exposure to construction work. Working 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 for what it takes to build something,” he reflects.
Catching the Energy Bug
After college, Williams solidified his interest in the construction field working for Bischoff Miller & Associates, a Columbus, Ohio-based architectural engineering firm that specialized in wastewater treatment facilities.
But it was while working as a senior environmental coordinator MidAmerican Energy Company in Des Moines, Iowa, that he officially caught the transmission and distribution (T&D) bug. While working for MidAmerican, Williams also earned a Master of Science degree in occupational safety management from Columbia Southern University. He joined Jingoli Power in 2015.
Putting Safety First
Today, Williams is guiding the critical planning phases of the SOO Green HVDC Link project, which expects to begin construction in Q1 2022 and begin operating in late 2024.
The project will be collocated along an active transportation corridor — 90 percent of it follows Canadian Pacific railways with the remainder lying within U.S. Department of Transportation rights of way — an approach that 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 by.
Offsetting Costs with Innovation
Digging the required trenches to lay the cable is a well-understood process, he added, but the real enabler for the project is the availability of Crosslinked Polyethylene (XLPE) transmission cable.
“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.”
Running conductor cable underground not only eliminates the visual eyesore of overhead transmission lines, he added, but also reduces the need to clear wide swaths of land and eliminates threats to migratory birds, bats and native plants.
Delivering on the Promise
And while safety and transmission technology are part and parcel of the SOO Green project’s execution plan, relates Williams, one of its most daunting challenge is logistics. He and his team are currently developing a rigorous plan to deliver materials and equipment to the worksite safely and on schedule to support the timely installation of 350 miles of underground cable.
“Jingoli Power has a track record of managing materials successfully for large projects, and we expect SOO Green HVDC to be no exception to that history,” he said proudly.
Williams recognizes, however, that communication with the public about the scope and benefits of SOO Green, is every bit as important to its success as the technologies of trench digging and cable installation.
To that end, he and his team have conducted a series of public meetings with consumers in Iowa to explain the project.
“I think the public has difficulty understanding that there are RTOs that control the grid within a region, and that SOO Green HVDC is going to connect between two regions,” Williams reflects. “They understand the concept of connecting a wind farm to the local substation, but what we’re doing is allowing everyone in the region to connect, in effect, with another region.”
Breaking the Bottleneck
Energized by these public meetings, Williams is excited about what the SOO Green HVDC Link will mean for renewable energy in general, and for current and future wind farms in the Upper Midwest in particular.
“Today, many of the wind farms in the MISO territory cannot operate at full capacity because there’s insufficient transmission infrastructure to ship out their renewable energy,” he said. “SOO Green will create a transmission tollway that will effectively break this bottleneck, allowing buyers of renewable energy on the East Coast to purchase excess utility-scale renewable energy from providers in the Midwest.”
This new underground energy pipeline will come with the added bonus of eliminating weather and storm-related outages, he added.
Keeping an Open Mind
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. COVID-19 restrictions have decidedly skewed his schedule toward Zoom meetings from home, but he still commutes periodically to socially-distanced 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’s seen his share of whimsical and seemingly unachievable infrastructure projects come to reality.
“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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