Mo. regulators signal readiness to OK Grain Belt Express

Source: Jeffrey Tomich, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, March 1, 2019

After twice rejecting a 780-mile transmission project to move wind energy from Kansas to the eastern United States, Missouri regulators are signaling they’re ready to approve the $2.5 billion project.

The Missouri Public Service Commission hasn’t formally voted on the Grain Belt Express line, but during a discussion yesterday and last week, members agreed the project satisfied all the criteria for approval and indicated they’ll vote to approve it despite pushback from landowners.

The PSC also indicated it would attach conditions to its approval of the project, including a requirement for the developer to establish a decommissioning fund to pay for removal of the line when it’s no longer being used.

Originally proposed by Clean Line Energy Partners in 2010, the Grain Belt Express would deliver wind energy from southwest Kansas to Indiana to serve cities in the East. The line would have 4,000 megawatts of capacity, with 3,500 MW sent to the PJM Interconnection grid and 500 MW delivered to eastern Missouri, part of the Midcontinent Independent System Operator’s grid.

The high-voltage, direct-current transmission project is representative of the challenge of building large interstate merchant lines connecting regional power grids — something many experts agree is necessary to achieve high penetrations of renewable energy (Energywire, Feb. 25).

The PSC rejected the Grain Belt Express project in 2016 and 2017 following challenges by landowner groups that oppose giving developers eminent domain authority.

The commission’s most recent order denying approval was based on the fact that Clean Line had yet to obtain approvals from each of the eight counties the project would cross. However, four of five PSC members determined the project was in the public interest under Missouri law.

The Missouri Supreme Court last year overturned the PSC’s 2017 order and remanded the case to the commission. Clean Line was represented in its appeal by former two-term Gov. Jay Nixon (D) (Energywire, July 18).

In a November filing asking the PSC for expedited reconsideration, Houston-based Clean Line announced that it had agreed to sell the project to Chicago-based renewable energy developer Invenergy LLC for an undisclosed sum.

It is unclear how soon the PSC could formally vote on the Grain Belt Express project.

In the meantime, a landowner group says it’s not giving up its fight to block the transmission line.

“We remain committed to defending property rights,” said Jennifer Gatrel, a spokeswoman for Block Grain Belt Express.

Gatrel said there’s strong local government opposition to the project along the planned route and she believes many of the eight county commissions will refuse to sign off on needed assents allowing construction. Several northeast Missouri counties similarly refused to grant permission for utility Ameren to construct a transmission line in 2017.

The stalemate prompted the utility to file a series of lawsuits against the counties that were ultimately settled when the utility agreed to changes in the project route.

Invenergy also must return to the Illinois Commerce Commission for approval of the Grain Belt Express.

The ICC approved the project in 2015. But Illinois courts ruled the ICC wrongly approved the project under an expedited state review process that’s intended for public utilities. Because Clean Line didn’t own assets in Illinois, the developer is categorized as a nonpublic utility.

The ruling followed a similar order by the Illinois Supreme Court regarding another Clean Line project, the Rock Island Clean Line, which the company subsequently abandoned.

Invenergy has told the Missouri PSC that it plans to begin construction in 2020 and complete the project in four years.

A company spokeswoman didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.