Clean Line’s wind-power superhighway approved in Illinois

Source: By Julie Wernau, Chicago Tribune • Posted: Monday, December 1, 2014

Rock Island transmission line approved

Wind-power superhighway moves forward in Illinois

A 500-mile transmission line designed to move wind-generated electric power from Iowa to Grundy County, Ill. can move forward, Illinois regulators decided Tuesday.

The Illinois Commerce Commission voted 5-0 to allow Clean Line Energy Partners to build and operate the first merchant-owned electric transmission line in the state.

The proposed $2 billion “Rock Island Clean Line” has the potential to dramatically cut electricity prices in Illinois and help the state meet its goals of deriving 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources such as wind and solar by 2025.

Landowners and Commonwealth Edison have argued that the project’s developer, Clean Line Energy Partners, is not a utility and therefore should not be building electric transmission lines. Opponents also have said that the line is not needed to flow power to homes and that calling the project a “clean line” is misleading because it also could transport other forms of power, including some generated by coal, considered a dirty fuel.

The project, expected to ship enough electricity to power 1.4 million homes annually, could hurt other power generators in the state, including Chicago-based Exelon Corp., parent of ComEd. Exelon operates nuclear generating plants that have seen power prices fall and profitability crimped as a result of competition from wind turbines.

Still, the project — which would cut across the northern part of the state for 120 miles — has gained support from such groups as the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago and Sierra Club.

“The project will deliver pollution-free power to Illinois homes and businesses and create good jobs in clean-energy technologies,” said Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of Sierra Club.

Clean Line also is working on a second line, the Grain Belt Express, that would run from Kansas, through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. About half of the proposed 750-mile line would run through Kansas and the company says it has received approvals in that state and Indiana, and that it expects a decision early next year from Missouri. The company said it would likely apply for approvals from Illinois early next year.

The Rock Island project is in the early stages. The developer must piece together parcels from hundreds of landowners and gain easements across the state necessary to erect the line, which would be strung from 150-foot-tall towers.

Opponents say they are concerned that Clean Line Energy would gain access to needed land through eminent domain. Tuesday’s decision, however, does not grant eminent domain authority.

“This is a significant issue, as RICL would have to go back to the ICC in a new petition in which their failure to prove ‘need’ could be a deciding factor in whether or not RICL would have the right of eminent domain,” Mauch said.

Clean Line Energy did not disclose whether it would seek eminent domain authority from the ICC.

Hans Detweiler, a spokesman for Clean Line, said as a condition of approval, the company must prove it has financing to finish the project before it begins construction. But construction could begin before all landowner agreements are in place, he said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the ICC added what it called “protections” for landowners and ratepayers. The agency said if the company tries to go to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to gain funding from ratepayers, the project would then be declared null and void.

Rock Island Clean Line is being billed as 100 percent investor backed. The state agency granted the company permission to “construct, operate and maintain” the transmission line. The line also needs approvals in Iowa to construct and operate the transmission line, which could include the power of eminent domain.

Clean Line’s biggest investor is National Grid, which in 2013 invested $40 million in the project. National Grid, one of the nation’s largest investor-owned energy companies, owns transmission lines in the U.S. and United Kingdom