Clean Line makes new pitch for $2.8B Midwest wind power line

Source: Jeffrey Tomich, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, March 24, 2017

For the second time in three years, merchant transmission developer Clean Line Energy Partners LP is before Missouri utility regulators seeking approval for a $2.8 billion high-voltage transmission line to deliver Kansas wind energy to the East.

In 2015, the Missouri Public Service Commission voted 3-2 to deny Houston-based Clean Line approval to build the 780-mile Grain Belt Express line, saying the company hadn’t established a need for it (Energywire, July 2, 2015).

The company, which is developing several similar U.S. projects, has spent a year and a half since working to address concerns and questions raised in the PSC order, including whether the project serves the public interest in Missouri.

“We went and addressed every single one of the issues they raised,” Mark Lawlor, director of development for the Grain Belt Express project, said in an interview ahead of the hearing.

During opening statements yesterday, Clean Line’s attorney, Karl Zobrist, compared the first-of-its-kind merchant transmission line across Missouri to a decision decades earlier to build the interstate highway system.

“What we propose today is a highway of steel to transmit low-cost, renewable energy,” Zobrist said.

The weeklong trial will cover every aspect of the project, including efforts by Clean Line to accommodate farmers and other rural landowners along the route who don’t want it.

The stakes are high. Clean Line has worked for seven years and invested about $50 million so far to get approvals for the 4,000-megawatt Grain Belt Express, which would stretch from southwest Kansas to Indiana, where it would connect with the PJM Interconnection energy market.

Regulators in the other three states crossed by the line — Indiana, Kansas and Illinois — approved it years ago, though the Illinois decision is being appealed in court.

All three Missouri PSC members who voted against the Grain Belt Express line are still on the commission, meaning the company must persuade at least one member to change his mind.

Lawlor suggested that the current effort represents the final attempt to win Missouri regulatory approval. “It is probably our last application to the commission,” he said.

Clean Line General Counsel Cary Kottler also said in response to a question from PSC Chairman Daniel Hall that the company likely won’t seek federal approval of the project under Section 1222 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Clean Line sought to use the never-before-used provision of federal law to build the Plains & Eastern high-voltage line from Oklahoma to Tennessee (Energywire, March 28).

The Grain Belt Express project would provide 3,500 MW of transmission capacity from southwest Kansas to PJM. A converter station would also be built to deliver 500 MW to the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) grid near Hannibal, Mo., where it would be available to Missouri utilities.

The cost of wind energy delivered to Missouri, perhaps more than any other issue, will be a focus of the hearing.

Cost of moving wind power

Two years ago, the PSC determined that wind energy generated elsewhere on the MISO grid was a cheaper alternative than Kansas wind energy delivered via the Grain Belt Express line.

“Since areas of MISO have some of the best wind energy resources in the United States, it is more likely that the large amount of available MISO wind can satisfy the needs of Missouri utilities for wind energy compared to the smaller amount of Kansas wind that GBE proposes to inject into MISO at the Missouri converter station,” the 2015 order said.

Clean Line’s answer this time: a pair of agreements among itself, a Kansas wind developer and a public power agency representing dozens of small Missouri cities, for as much as 200 MW of wind energy at a rock-bottom price.

Lawlor, the Grain Belt project director, said the agreements demonstrate the tangible benefits that the line makes available to Missouri utilities.

“Better than us proving that, [the municipal utilities] have done so,” Lawlor told E&E News before the hearing. “It certainly helps prove out what we’ve been saying all along.”

The cities would be able to receive the wind energy at a savings of $10 million annually compared with existing agreements to purchase electricity from coal-fueled power plants, the public power agency said. The contracts to purchase electricity from the Illinois coal plants would be replaced with the wind energy contracts in 2021 (Energywire, Jan. 31).

But landowner opponents said that the contracts with the cities aren’t concrete and that the agreed-to price — which Clean Line has referred to as a “first-mover rate” — is artificially below what will be available to subsequent buyers.

“It’s obvious from the evidence that Grain Belt is seeking to buy its way into Missouri by offering discriminatory, drastically discounted, below-cost rate to a single customer,” said Paul Agathan, an attorney for the Missouri Landowners Association. “They need the Missouri steppingstone to get them to the more lucrative markets in the East.”

Agathan’s client is one of two landowner groups that are the principal opponents to the Grain Belt Express. With backing from the Missouri Farm Bureau, the groups have spent years challenging Clean Line at every turn. The groups claim that the line is unnecessary and unwanted among hundreds of rural landowners who fear being forced via eminent domain to accommodate steel towers and high-voltage wires.

“Any assumed benefits from this line are simply not worth the human toll that it’s going to take on a daily basis, year in and year out, for the people who live in this area,” Agathan, a retired Ameren Corp. attorney, said during his opening statement yesterday.

Clean Line said the contracts with the Missouri cities are just one of many improvements in the project that were made to help convince utility regulators.

The company revised landowner protocols. It has continued work on interconnection agreements with grid managers MISO, PJM and the Southwest Power Pool, where the line originates. It has also rallied support from commercial and industrial business groups, labor unions and environmental groups.

“Business, labor and the public are more broadly supporting this project than before,” Zobrist said.

Gathering local support

Another focus of the hearing surrounds a legal question over local support for the project in the eight counties it would cross.

The counties initially signed off on the Grain Belt Express line, but at least one county subsequently rescinded its endorsement, and others have suggested they will do likewise. Another county agreement was invalidated in court.

Landowner groups and the PSC staff argue that Clean Line needs approval from all eight counties before the PSC issues a decision. The company said it needs “assents” from the counties but that approvals can be obtained after the PSC grants a certificate to build the line.

The issue may ultimately rely on another transmission project: Ameren’s 95-mile, $225 million Mark Twain transmission line running through the northeast corner of the state. In that case, the PSC approved the project contingent on Ameren’s obtaining county approval before beginning construction (Energywire, Nov. 8, 2016).

Four of the five counties subsequently voted to deny permission to construct the line across county roads, and the fifth tabled the issue. St. Louis-based Ameren responded with lawsuits against all five. The lawsuits were consolidated and are still pending.

The PSC staff, a group of attorneys, accountants and engineers who advise regulators, said it doesn’t oppose the Grain Belt Express. But the staff said it doesn’t agree that the project satisfies key criteria used by the commission on which to base its approval.