The Missouri Supreme Court in Jefferson City has decided the state made a mistake when it blocked a company from building a massive wind power transmission line.

Missouri Supreme Court – Image courtesy of Missouri Courts

In a unanimous decision handed down Tuesday, the court ordered the Public Service Commission (PSC) to reconsider whether Clean Line Energy could move forward with its multi-state Grain Belt Express project in Missouri.

The court clarified that Clean Line applied for a certificate to build a power line through an area rather than a certificate to provide a retail service within an area.  The court determined that prior consent from counties is not necessary to construct a power line as it would have been to provide retail service.

The high bench said the PSC made an error in relying on a court decision in another case that determined it didn’t have the authority to issue a certificate until county commissioners granted approval.

The PSC actually rejected the Grain Belt project twice.  It initially denied a request filed in July 2015 by Clean Line, saying the company failed to prove that the project was economically feasible or that it promoted the public interest.

Clean Line then 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.

That submission from Clean Line was also rejected in 2017.  Four of the five PSC commissioners said that they found the second 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 a separate 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 through 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 were 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.

With its hand down Tuesday, the high bench ordered the PSC to make further determinations about the necessity or convenience of the proposed utility project.  The PSC indicated during Supreme Court arguments that it favored the decision made by the Eastern District, which means it’ll likely grant the Grain Belt project to move forward.

Advocates on both sides of the issue released statements Tuesday.

The Missouri Farm Bureau, which normally sides with landowners, claimed the court misinterpreted state law by shifting oversight of power line placement from county governments to the state PSC.

“Missouri Farm Bureau members believe this decision makes it dangerously easy for property owners’ land to be taken by eminent domain for merchant transmission lines,” the organization said.

The environmental group Renew Missouri championed the 7-0 Supreme Court decision as a win for clean energy.

“While this case has lingered in limbo for years as our neighbor states like Iowa and Illinois have passed us by, this puts the Show-Me State back on the map for wind energy by giving municipal utility companies all over the state more options in how they can best serve their customers’ power needs,” said Renew Missouri Executive Director James Owen.

Owen also indicated his organization thought contributions to opponents of the project had come from individuals or groups that purposely hid their identities.

“Lots of resources were poured into fighting off this progress,” Owen said.  “We will probably never know who funded the efforts to defeat the Grain Belt Express or how much dark money was used. But the great thing about our state government is we have an appellate system untouched by unseemly political calculations.”

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.  About 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.

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