An epic battle over US wind energy has been brewing in Missouri, where state regulators have been trading blows with state legislators over a proposed 780-mile wind energy transmission line called the Grain Belt Express. Right now it looks like wind energy has the upper hand, but this is only the middle rounds of what could be a 12-round bout. What happens next is anybody’s guess.
Round 1: The Grain Belt Express Wind Energy Transmission Line Is Down…
The Grain Belt Express first crossed the CleanTechnica radar all the way back in 2011. One of a suite of new transmission lines proposed by the Houston-based company Clean Line Energy, the ambitious project — if ever completed — will bring wind energy from Kansas wind farms over to Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and points east.
Things were looking good when officials in Kansas, Illinois, and Indiana quickly greenlighted the new project. By 2015, though, it still didn’t have Missouri on board.
Property owners objected on eminent domain grounds, and in 2015 the Missouri Public Service Commission agreed that that the “evidence shows that any actual benefits to the general public from the Project are outweighed by the burdens on affected landowners.”
Round 2: …But Not Out! Oh Wait, Out! Out!
Clean Line went back to the Missouri PSC to argue its case twice more. The third time occurred in 2017. By then PSC acknowledged the public benefit angle, but the commissioners lobbed the hot potatoes of wind energy transmission and eminent domain back over to county officials. The St. Louis Dispatch explained:
Members of the state Public Service Commission acknowledged that the Grain Belt Express project planned by Houston developer Clean Line Energy would be “in the public interest” and save electric customers in certain Missouri cities millions of dollars annually. However, the PSC determined that a recent court decision requires counties to approve the project first.
In other words, no eminent domain for you!
Round 3: Legal Free-For-All Over Wind Energy
It looked like Clean Line Energy was running out of options, but as noted by The Missouri Times, the PSC commissioners based their decision on a somewhat dubious ruling by the court (emphasis added):
The court ruling, in effect, gives priority to county commissioners for the approval of linear infrastructure projects, though the PSC has been the granting authority in the matter for over a century.
Under this current reading of the Missouri law by the courts, no infrastructure project can be approved by the PSC without first securing road crossing permission from each county it traverses.
That explains why the gloves came off. Clean Line washed its hands of the PSC and marched over to the Missouri Supreme Court with an appeal of the ruling.
Last year the ruling came down in Clean Line’s favor. St. Louis Today reported that “the Missouri Supreme Court unanimously ruled that state regulators erred in rejecting the project based on a controversial legal precedent.”
Round 4: A New Player In The Wind Energy Corner
Grain Belt Express fans almost had a heart attack later in 2017, when Clean Line Energy announced a restructuring that would result in selling off its development rights for the project.
While that deal was still pending approval, in March of this year PSC heard the case yet again. This time everything came up roses for the wind energy transmission project.
PSC approved the project and enumerated all the public benefits in lavish detail, including substantial improvements in air quality and water conservation as well as millions in cost savings.
Round 5: State Lawmakers Step Up To The Plate
So much for the good news. While all this was happening, Missouri state legislators threw a monkey wrench into the works.
Just one month after the new PSC decision, Missourinet.com reported that a “bill moving quickly through the Missouri House attempts to stop a high voltage, wind energy transmission line designated to run through private property in northern Missouri.”
The bill’s sponsor, Jim Hansen (R-Frankford) represents two of counties where landowners are contesting the project. He argued that as a private entity, the new transmission line did not qualify for eminent domain takings.
Round 6: Smooth Sailing For Wind Energy Transmission…
While all this was going on, last week the Public Service Commission finally approved the sale of Grain Belt to Invenergy. Here’s the happy recap from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
The line, which will go through eight northern Missouri counties, would also deliver power to at least 350,000 Missourians and unlock energy savings of $12.8 million per year, based on contracts already reached with municipal utilities around the state.
The Post-Dispatch also clarified that a total of 10 acres of land would be acquired in Missouri. That all sounds like a big to-do over not much land, though for legal purposes only the ground footprint counts, not the overhead wires.
To ice the cake, Hansen’s legislation quietly expired in the Missouri state senate, after a bipartisan group of lawmakers filibustered it.
Round 7: …But Batten Down The Hatches, A Storm Is Coming
The Post-Dispatch cautioned that the Hansen bill could be revived next year, but that’s not what has Grain Belt watchers gripping the edge of their seats.
The great state of Illinois, which previously approved the project, had a sudden change of heart and withdrew its consent.
The Hannibal Courier-Post caught up with that development last year when a state Court of Appeals ruled that the project did not qualify as a public utility.
That decision dropped the ball squarely into the lap of the Illinois Commerce Commission.
In addition, property owners in Missouri are also considering their legal options.
CleanTechnica is reaching out to Invenergy for an update, so stay tuned for more on that.
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Image (screenshot): Grain Belt Express overview via Clean Line Energy.