Ill. regulators approve Grain Belt Express project

Source: Jeffrey Tomich, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, November 16, 2015

Illinois utility regulators yesterday approved Clean Line Energy Partners’ request to build a high-voltage transmission line across the state as part of the $2.5 billion Grain Belt Express project to deliver wind power from the Kansas plains to more populous areas to the east.

The five-member Illinois Commerce Commission voted 3-2, with Commissioners Ann McCabe and Miguel del Valle voting against Clean Line’s request, which was made under a section of Illinois law that allows utilities to seek expedited approval of such projects.

The commissioners said Houston-based Clean Line, a merchant transmission developer, didn’t qualify as a public utility at the time it submitted its application in April and shouldn’t have been allowed to use the faster approval process.

However, del Valle in particular noted support of Clean Line’s goal to move wind energy from remote southwest Kansas to population centers farther east in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Climate change will continue to be a significant issue that will affect all of us,” del Valle said. “I fully support the goal of building infrastructure of moving renewable generation from sparsely populated areas which are rich in wind resources to areas with larger loads and higher prices.”

Approval by the ICC represents another cleared hurdle for Clean Line, which has been working for more than five years to develop the Grain Belt Express project. Still, the company faces a decision about how to sway at least one more member of the Missouri Public Service Commission to change his or her mind after the five-member panel rejected it earlier this year in a split vote.

Plans call for the 780-mile direct-current line to begin in Kansas and terminate just across the Indiana state line. It would deliver as much as 500 megawatts of wind energy into the Midcontinent Independent System Operator’s grid and as much as 3,500 MW into the grid run by PJM Interconnection LLC.

Clean Line already has approval from utility regulators in three of four states and now turns its attention back to Missouri. Options include going back before the PSC or trying for federal siting approval under Section 1222 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

“We’re evaluating what the best option is,” Mark Lawlor, director of development for the Grain Belt line, said in an interview. “We are committed to moving the project forward.”

Lawlor said Clean Line is reviewing its options and would likely decide on a strategy to pursue by early next year.

The Grain Belt Express is one of five long-distance transmission projects planned by Clean Line that are in various stages of development. In another of those projects, the Plains and Eastern project from Oklahoma to Tennessee, the company has sought federal siting authority.

Clean Power Plan provides new twist

In its order rejecting Clean Line’s application, the Missouri PSC said the company could refile for approval if it had new information that demonstrated need for the project. And Commissioner Daniel Hall, now chairman of the PSC, said he hoped the company would do so.

Clean Line argued at the time the Grain Belt project would bring the state 500 MW of low-cost wind energy, reduce emissions and create jobs. While it’s not clear what kind of new information the company might bring to regulators to secure a majority of votes, one development since the PSC’s July 1 ruling is U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

The final rule issued Aug. 3, which is being challenged by state Attorney General Chris Koster, requires Missouri to slash CO2 emissions from the power sector by 37 percent by 2030 — something that would require Missouri to boost the share of energy it gets from renewable resources.

Lawlor said the Grain Belt Express, in addition to its economic and environmental benefits, offers the Show Me State a source of carbon-free energy below the cost of wholesale power.

“I’d assume [the Clean Power Plan] would be a very important consideration,” he said.

In approving the Grain Belt Express yesterday, the ICC included several conditions. Clean Line did not ask regulators for eminent domain authority and would need to return to the commission should it be unable to secure easements through private negotiations.

Lawlor said Clean Line has secured some easements already in Kansas and Missouri and continues dialogues with landowners. But the company won’t spend heavily to acquire right of way until all of the regulatory approvals are in hand, he said.

Illinois landowners who opposed the project, meanwhile, issued a statement saying they will continue to fight Clean Line’s efforts to develop the project. The group said it may appeal the commission’s decision and will work with affected property owners to make it more difficult for the company to acquire needed easements.

“We are disappointed by today’s decision, but it was not unexpected. It is imperative for members of the opposition to remain united in our common goal of preserving property rights,” Block Grain Belt Express President Dave Buckman said.