The Missouri Public Service Commission (PSC) is holding hearings in Jefferson City this week to determine if a massive wind energy project will move forward.
In July, the state Supreme Court ordered the Commission to reconsider the Clean Line Energy Grain Belt Express project it had previously rejected. The proposal calls for a high voltage transmission power line to be built from wind farms near Dodge City in southwestern Kansas, across northern Missouri, and through Illinois to the Indiana border.
Clean Line Energy, which is in negotiations to sell the project to sustainable energy developer Invenergy, is seeking permits from state regulators in Kansas and Missouri to build the power line.
If Invenergy successfully acquires the project, it would consider the option of extending the power line through Illinois as originally intended. The Illinois portion of the venture had previously been OK’ed by regulators, but the decision was reversed by a state appeals court which determined the project operator would have to purchase infrastructure in order to qualify as a public utility.
Invenergy bills itself as North America’s largest privately held renewable energy provider. The Chicago based company has 89 wind projects worldwide that generate 12,814 megawatts of power. The firm and its affiliates claim to have more than $9 billion in total assets.
The Grain Belt Express as originally envisioned would include 780 miles between Kansas and the Indiana border where it would connect to a grid that supplies energy to heavily populated northeastern states.
The project would cost $2.35 billion with $535 million being spent on the Missouri portion, all of which would be privately financed. It would carry 4,000 megawatts (MW) of wind-generated power with 3,500 MW going to Illinois, Indiana and the east while up to 500 MW would be secured for Missouri.
The transmission line would run through eight counties across north Missouri – Buchanon, Clinton, Caldwell, Carroll, Chariton, Randolph, Monroe and Ralls. A presentation from Clean Line Energy at the Tuesday PSC hearing stated the power line would generate $7.2 million annually in property taxes for the counties while landowner compensation would total $32 million.
Two organizations strongly opposed to the project have a vocal presence at the hearings – the Missouri Farm Bureau and the Missouri Landowners Alliance. Attorneys for both groups quizzed Clean Line Energy Tuesday over its ability to complete the project should the sale to Invenergy fall through. The company has dropped out of two other major transmission line projects and now has zero employees after once having 50.
The Farm Bureau and Landowners Alliance claim the project would seize private property through eminent domain without providing any benefit for the state. Columbia attorney Brent Haden, who was hired by the Farm Bureau for the PSC hearings said it would force farmers and ranchers to spend time and money on court battles to keep their property.
“Somebody who’s in the middle of harvest, in the middle of planting, in the middle of calving season has to come in and take time to come out of the field, talk to a lawyer they don’t want to be talking to in the first place, spend their money to get a lawyer they don’t want to have to hire in the first place, to then turn around and fight a battle with a corporation who has taken their land who shouldn’t have the right to that privilege to begin with,” said Haden.
Proponents of the transmission line contend it’ll bring large benefits to Missouri. In addition to the tax revenue and landowner compensation, Clean Line Energy and a consortium of utilities that have agreed to accept delivery of 200 MW of wind power estimate municipalities will save at least $10 million annually.
Clean Line Energy Chairman Michael Skelly contended during Tuesday’s hearing that the project would significantly lower utility bills for customers, claiming the price of wind has dropped 20 percent in the last year-and-a-half alone. “It is amazing how quickly the cost of renewable energy is dropping,” said Skelly. “And the reason why is that wind turbines are getting bigger and bigger. That allows for greater energy capture with a similar investment.” (Although Clean Line Energy has no employees, Skelly remains its lone officer)
The reason the PSC is once again considering the Grain Belt Express is that the Missouri Supreme Court said the regulator made an error in determining it didn’t have the authority to issue a permit for the project 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.
The PSC is holding hearings Tuesday and Wednesday in the Grain Belt case.