Kan., Mo. get capacity boosts from Grain Belt Express

Source: By Jeffrey Tomich, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, August 27, 2020

The developer of the Grain Belt Express direct-current transmission project now plans to commit more than half of the line’s capacity to Kansas and Missouri.

Chicago-based Invenergy LLC, which took over the planned project from Clean Line Energy Partners LLC last year, announced the change Tuesday. New plans call for 2,500 megawatts of the line’s 4,000 MW capacity to be dedicated to Missouri and Kansas.

As originally planned, the $2.5 billion project would have sent 500 MW to a converter station in eastern Missouri with the majority of capacity sent to the PJM Interconnection grid.

Beth Conley, an Invenergy spokeswoman, said the change stems from discussions with potential purchasers of energy in the two states and increasing interest in lower-cost renewable electricity.

“There’s increased consumer interest in more access to lower-cost power and demand for low-cost renewable energy,” Conley said.

On Tuesday, Invenergy released the summary of a study that it commissioned showing the plan to dedicate more than half of the line’s capacity to carry energy for Missouri and Kansas will help save consumers in those states an average of $50 a year in electricity costs from 2024 to 2045.

While environmental groups have widely supported the project, a Missouri consumer advocate also applauded the revamped plan to supply additional wind energy to utility customers.

“Now is the time to move forward with any and all initiatives that provide rate relief to households that are struggling under this current economy,” John Coffman of the Consumers Council of Missouri said in a statement. “The Grain Belt project will allow cheaper alternatives of energy production to be made available, providing rate relief for all consumers.”

Changes to the Grain Belt Express project are just the latest twist in a decadelong odyssey by Clean Line, and more recently Invenergy, to construct a wind energy superhighway from remote western Kansas to points east.

The project is among a number of new high-voltage lines envisioned to connect areas of the country with the highest wind and solar energy potential to population centers where demand is concentrated. The build-out of a more robust grid is seen as a key to continuing to reduce power sector carbon emissions.

However, landowners and politicians have challenged new long-haul transmission lines at every stage of development over the use of eminent domain to obtain easements.

Invenergy won regulatory approval last year to build the Missouri section of the project after lengthy regulatory and legal battles with some rural landowners (Energywire, Feb. 28, 2019). The project also survived an attempt by Missouri legislators to pass a bill that would have blocked it from moving forward.

Pending permits

The overall scope of the project hasn’t changed, according to Invenergy. Plans still call for the direct-current line to reach nearly 800 miles from western Kansas to Indiana.

But already having regulatory approvals in Kansas and Missouri will allow the developer to move forward in the two states while Invenergy seeks approval to build the Illinois section of the project, Conley said.

“Our intention is to develop the full project as contemplated,” she said.

The Illinois Commerce Commission approved the Grain Belt Express line in 2015. But a state appellate court later invalidated the order because developer Clean Line had used an expedited review process intended for public utilities. Because the company didn’t own assets in Illinois, the merchant transmission developer didn’t qualify as a public utility.

Conley didn’t say when Invenergy will file a new application for approval in the company’s home state.

Development in Missouri and Kansas, however, is moving ahead “full steam,” she said.

As of early spring, when the COVID-19 pandemic slowed economic activity across the U.S., the company had begun acquiring easements and doing the engineering, environmental and technical studies needed to begin construction.

Conley said construction in the two states could begin within the next two years. The company hasn’t provided an estimate of when the line would be complete.

Who will hitch a ride on Grain Belt?

What utilities ultimately secure capacity on the Grain Belt Express line remains to be seen.

In 2016, the Missouri Joint Municipal Electric Utility Commission, which supplies electricity to dozens of small Missouri cities, entered into a transmission service agreement with Grain Belt Express for 100 MW to 200 MW of capacity. The commission also entered a contract with a yet-to-be-developed western Kansas wind project for energy to be delivered to the Missouri grid.

So far, there are no other agreements among Invenergy and utilities in Kansas and Missouri to purchase capacity on the Grain Belt Express or energy from wind farms that supply energy to the line.

Conley said “commercial discussions are ongoing” with potential customers.