Duke, State Grid May Build US Power Lines -Sources
Dec 21, 2009 - Energy Central
Duke Energy Corp. (DUK) is in talks with State Grid Corp., China's biggest electricity distributor, over a joint venture that may involve installing power transmission lines in the U.S., according to two people familiar with the situation.
The move shows how U.S. utilities are keen to tap China's low-cost equipment and access to cheap credit to advance capital-intensive projects such as the construction of high-voltage transmission lines, which experts say are more efficient over long distances than conventional power cables.
The talks also highlight the need for China's utilities to find foreign partners with cutting-edge technology that can eliminate years of costly research and development. According to a person close to the negotiations, State Grid wants to study Duke's smart grid technology for use in China.
Duke spokesman Tom Williams said the company is interested in partnering with Chinese companies on transmission line projects in the U.S., but added the talks are in their early stages.
Duke has previously named State Grid as a potential joint venture partner on projects, without specifying what these would involve.
Any transmission partnership is likely to look similar to an agreement Duke inked this fall with ENN Group, a Chinese gas-distribution and solar-power company, to develop solar-power projects in the U.S. Under the deal, ENN would furnish equipment and Duke would run the plants. The two companies would consider developing plants using solar equipment from a third party, a Duke spokesman said.
Confirming talks were under way on cooperation in building transmission lines in the U.S., a State Grid executive said Duke "regards highly our power transmission technology."
Another person said a joint venture would mainly focus on building lines within Duke's service area, which include the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.
Investments by China in U.S. infrastructure companies and the U.S. energy sector have faced political resistance. Yet the landscape has shifted a bit during the credit crisis, as American companies' appetite for Chinese capital has increased.
Duke isn't alone in looking to China. In recent months, global power generator AES Corp. (AES) announced it would sell a 15% equity stake in the company to China's sovereign-wealth fund China Investment Corp., while Progress Energy Inc. (PGN) agreed to share information with Shandong Nuclear Power Co., which is a unit of China Power Investment Corp.
At the same time, several large U.S. power companies are increasingly looking to high-voltage, long-distance transmission projects for growth as the U.S.' infrastructure ages and more focus is put on moving power from rural areas where renewable generation can be developed.
Duke's Williams said the U.S. utility is exploring partnerships with Chinese companies in Central and South America as well, possibly buying or developing power assets there. Duke already has operations in a handful of countries in the region, including Argentina, Brazil and Peru.
Jim Rogers, Duke's chairman and chief executive, in a recent joint statement with ENN Group Chairman Wang Yusuo, ahead of the global climate change talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, highlighted the need for cooperation between the two countries.
"It is our hope that the Duke Energy-ENN agreement and similar partnerships can foster the emerging cooperation we see developing between our two countries, " they wrote.
State Grid, one of the largest companies in the world in terms of revenue, has been gradually raising its traditionally low profile. In 2007, it was part of a successful consortium that bid to run the just-privatized national electricity grid in the Philippines, and last year lost a bid to buy assets in New Zealand. A tie-up with Duke would mark its first foray into the U.S.
State Grid is spending billions of U.S. dollars on upgrading China's rickety grid to carry electricity from coal-rich inland provinces to the power-hungry coast. Coal meets two-thirds of China's power needs, and the government wants most new thermal power plants to be built at mine mouths to ease bottlenecks in the country's transportation network and pollution near major cities.
Heavy spending on renewable energy, including dams to facilitate hydropower generation and massive wind farms, is also making improvements to China's grid a necessity. One project--a wind farm at Jiuquan in the flat and arid province of Gansu--envisages the installation of 12.7 gigawatts of generating capacity by 2015, or more than the entire generating capacity of Hungary.
This rapid expansion is creating business opportunities for foreign companies such as Duke that are willing to share expertise in transmission and distribution systems that would enable China to make technological leaps faster than it could achieve on its own.
State Grid says it wants to build a nationwide "strong smart grid," but China has so far lagged behind the U.S. and many countries in Europe in lining up spending to exploit the technology. So-called smart-grid technology aims to modernize the power sector by overlaying digital communications onto the grid, enabling utilities to manage supply more efficiently and compensate for any variance.
-Wan Xu in Beijing and Mark Peters in New York contributed to this article; Dow Jones Newswires; 8610-84007799; firstname.lastname@example.org