The Missouri Supreme Court will decide if a transmission line to carry wind power through northern Missouri will move forward.
The Grain Belt Express project has been rejected by the state Public Service Commission (PSC) twice. The Commission denied a request filed in July 2015 by Clean Line Energy for a certificate of convenience and necessity which would give the company eminent domain to construct, operate and maintain a high voltage transmission line.
The PSC said Clean Line had failed to prove a need for the project, that it was economically feasible or that it promoted the public interest.
Clean Line than regrouped and came back to the PSC after acquiring 39 cities who signed on to be wind power customers in the form of a group known as the Missouri Joint Municipal Electric Utility Commission. Columbia, Rolla, and Hannibal are among the cities in the group. Clean Line says it also addressed landowner complaints by forging landowner protections never before seen in efforts to get infrastructure only projects approved.
In 2017, the PSC once again rejected Clean Line’s request for a certificate to build the transmission line. Four of the five PSC commissioners said that they found the proposal met the criteria to grant the request but asserted that they were handcuffed by a recent court decision which indicated county approval was needed in order run cable over roads.
What had happened is the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals in Kansas City had disallowed another transmission line to move forward in 2016 after determining the PSC didn’t have authority to issue a certificate until county commissioners in each affected county had granted approval.
That case involved Ameren Transmission Company of Illinois, which sought to build a 345-volt electric transmission line from Palmyra, Missouri though five state counties to the Iowa border in what’s known as the Mark Twain Project.
But a more recent court filing in response to the Western District’s decision led to a far different conclusion. In a case brought by Clean Line against the PSC, the Eastern District Court of Appeals in St. Louis held that there’s no reference to local authority in the portion of the law it deems relevant to the construction of transmission lines.
Two portions of the law are at the center of the divergent appeals court decisions.
The first part governs the construction of infrastructure, which doesn’t contain language pertaining to municipalities or counties. While the Eastern District court embraced this section of the statute, the Western District’s interpretation relied on language referring to local authorities that is found in the second part of the law to conclude that county approval is necessary.
Because of the discrepancy between the two court decisions, the Eastern District Appeals Court petitioned to have the case transferred to the State Supreme Court earlier this year, which was accepted by the high bench.
For its part, the PSC would like for the high court to dismiss all the motions made by all other parties in the case and for it to decide between the conflicting appeals court decisions.
In its brief written Attorney Jennifer Heinz, who also argued before the high court, the Commission said, “The Court does not need to reach the remaining arguments presented by any of the parties in any of the other arguments to dispose of the case”.
Before the judges in Jefferson City Tuesday, Heinz indicated that the PSC favors the decision made by the Eastern District. “The Eastern District did what I, as the attorney, asked the Western District to do in ATXI (the Ameren Transmission Company case), but the Western district did not,” said Heinz.
Missouri Landowners Alliance, which opposes the Grain Belt Express Project, took its opportunity in front of the judges to frame Clean Line as a franchise in its efforts to build the transmission line, which would place requirements for the project in the second section of the law.
“If what the county is giving to Green Belt is a franchise, then it clearly falls within subsection two,” said Missouri Landowners Alliance Attorney Paul Agathan.
The case drew increased media coverage when outlets became aware that former Democratic Governor Jay Nixon would be representing Grain Belt Clean Line before the judges. Nixon told the court that the $2.3 billion, privately funded, eight-county project across the state would bring essential benefits to Missouri.
“For our state, this would bring not only clean, renewable wind power to tens of thousands of Missourians, but also generate millions of dollars in savings on energy bills and provide over $7 million in yearly property tax payments to our schools, first responders and other entities along its path,” said Nixon.
The Grain Belt Express line itself would run from wind farms in western Kansas through Missouri and Illinois to Indiana, and east coast markets where the majority of its 4,000 megawatts of wind power would be distributed. 500 megawatts of the total would be secured for Missouri if the project is ultimately approved.
Currently, the 39 cities that have signed on to accept delivery would utilize 200 megawatts with the hope that more utilities join in once the project is up and running.
Clean Line and the Missouri Joint Municipal Electric Utility Commission estimate $10 million a year will be saved between the existing cities with the cheaper delivery of power.
Doug Healy, General Counsel with the Joint Municipal Electric Utility Commission notes that if the transmission line weren’t built, transmission service agreements that expire in 2020 would have to be replaced with more expensive power from coal plants in Illinois.
He says the Grain Line Express provides an opportunity to provide rural areas with cheaper renewable energy. “This just kind of meets what our customers want in our areas, “said Healy. “And when we can provide our rural citizens renewable energy, there’s no cost or risk of fuel, there are no emissions, it just makes a lot of sense business-wise.”
The Sierra Club and Renew Missouri, two environmental groups, filed a joint brief for the Supreme Court case as interveners in support of the project. Renew Missouri Executive Director James Owen says it would be major step forward for renewable energy in Missouri.
“We think this is going to be a good step forward for rural communities and seeing more jobs there,” said Owen. “We’re really hopeful that more renewable energy coming to places like Columbia, places like Hannibal, places like Kirkwood will ultimately be beneficial to other economic development avenues in the state because there’s a lot of businesses who want this as an option.”
Another snag in the transmission line’s progress developed on March 13th, when the Illinois Fifth District Appellate Court reversed the Illinois Commerce Commission’s Order granting Grain Belt Express a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity.
Mark Lawler with Clean Line said the issue is very fixable because the Illinois court is only requiring the company to purchase utility assets before applying for approval.
The Supreme Court adjourned after hearing arguments Tuesday. Its normal procedure is to hand down decision six-to-eight weeks after its hearings take place.