Wind energy line sought again in Iowa

Source: By B.A. Morelli, The Gazette • Posted: Friday, December 4, 2015

Developers again petitioned state regulators this week in an effort to jump-start a stalled $2 billion project to carry wind energy from northwest Iowa to customers in Illinois via high-voltage transmission lines.

Rock Island Clean Line, a subsidiary of Houston-based Clean Line Energy Partners, filed a third request for bifurcation Monday. The motion would set a procedural schedule bifurcating — or separating into two decisions — the merits of the project and eminent domain, a process of condemning private land.

The Iowa Utilities Board, from which Rock Island formally requested the franchise permit to build the line in November 2014, denied similar proposals in 2013 and last February. The board ruled that bifurcating would disproportionately benefit the developers while negatively affecting many others, particularly landowners.

Differences stressed

Rock Island in its motion acknowledged similarities to prior motions, but detailed differences.

“What we requested is a procedural schedule that will let us move forward in a timely manner,” Clean Line spokeswoman Beth Conley said by phone Wednesday. “What it does is request one proceeding done in two distinct phases.”

The previous requests called for two hearings, while this request proposes one hearing with two phases and also addresses other concerns raised by the IUB.

In the first phase, the board would consider whether the project serves the public good, whether eminent domain should be granted generally and would set a route, Conley said. If the board affirms, the second phase would address “parcel-specific issues having to do with condemnation if it is needed,” Conley said.

Rock Island says the proposal clarifies to all parties which issues will be addressed in which phases, promotes administrative efficiency and convenience to the public, and assures affected landowners receive fair compensation if eminent domain is invoked.

“In addition, Clean Line’s procedural schedule is essential to allow the project to proceed, and it will increase voluntary easement acquisition and reduce condemnation rates,” according to the motion.

The Next Step

The proposed timeline suggests the hearing process begin in December 2016.

IUB spokesman Don Tormey called it a “similar proposal to bifurcate the proceedings.”

“The next step is to wait 14 days to allow the other parties to file responses to the motion,” Tormey wrote in an email.

The 500-mile line would transmit 3,500 megawatts of wind energy from wind turbines in Iowa to up to 1.4 million homes in northwest Illinois, according to the company. New towers would carry overhead transmission lines diagonally through 1,540 parcels of land in 16 Iowa counties, including Linn.

While the project has the backing of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, landowners have been reluctant to sign deals. According to Rock Island, agreements are in hand for 15 percent of the parcels needed.

IUB said last month Rock Island requested its bid be put on hold.

‘Can’t take a hint’

State Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, who’s been pursuing stronger eminent domain restrictions, is critical of Rock Island’s efforts.

“I’m frustrated with them because they can’t take a hint,” Kaufmann said. “They’ve been told three times ‘no’ as far as bifurcation. They are not wanted here. And now they are making a power play like this, while pursuing federal alternatives. It is the height of arrogance.”