In a win for a group of rural Missouri landowners, utility regulators blocked a multistate transmission line that backers say would transport Kansas wind energy to eastern electric grids.
The Missouri Public Service Commission’s 3-2 vote to deny the Grain Belt Express project’s route could derail the entire line, which already won approval from Kansas and Indiana. Regulators indicated during a meeting last month that they would deny the project, and Clean Line’s last-ditch efforts to build more support around the state didn’t change the expected vote.
The massive infrastructure project isn’t dead. Clean Line has hinted they may seek authority through federal law, although it’s unclear whether that will succeed. Clean Line is pursuing that strategy in Arkansas, where regulators denied a similar project.
But the vote is a major setback for a line that was close to winning approval from all the states it crossed. In their vote to deny the project, the PSC majority cited opposition from a vocal group of farmers and rural landowners opposed to eminent domain.
“You had to come down to the property rights,” PSC Commissioner Scott Rupp said, explaining his vote to deny the project. “The fact is this did not come from a planning organization. ... This was a business model of a private company.”
Transmission line routes must be approved by state regulators, who give the developers the right to use eminent domain if they can’t secure all the property necessary for the lines.
Typically, the developers are utilities and the projects are chosen through a planning process by regional transmission organizations, or RTOs, and paid for by the region’s ratepayers.
Grain Belt was different, proposed by a non-utility that said it would sign up wind developers and electricity buyers on its own. Clean Line said that would put the risk on its investors instead of utility customers.
But the company’s proposal, which would have delivered up to 500 megawatts of wind power into Missouri, didn’t convince regulators it was a benefit to the Show-Me State. Its plan to deliver at least 3,500 megawatts to customers in other states is now in limbo.
“They did not show the need for the service or that it promoted the public interest of Missourians, which I represent,” PSC Commissioner Stephen Stoll said. Though he said he supported wind power, “I don’t believe in giving utility status to anyone that comes along and claims that’s what they’re going to deliver.”
Clean Line representatives had argued the additional wind power would help coal-heavy Missouri comply with proposed federal rules cutting greenhouse gas emissions, an argument the PSC found unpersuasive.
“They’re going to need a host of answers, so to foreclose on an option that is really of no risk to the state at this stage in the game is disappointing, but the reality won’t change,” said Mark Lawlor, Clean Line’s director of development. “The market is demanding projects like Grain Belt Express.”
Like many infrastructure projects, landowner opposition typically bubbles up against transmission lines. But the public sent more than 7,000 comments, most of them opposed, to state regulators on this case.
The PSC said only a handful of cases had ever generated as many comments.
“Obviously we’re thrilled,” said Jennifer Gatrel, who leads Block Grain Belt Express Missouri. “Thousands of us have poured our lives into this and lost sleep. ... They’re offering us only a tidbit of electricity and the rest would be shipped somewhere else.”
Environmentalists, on the other hand, supported the line, arguing that infrastructure connecting the wind-rich Great Plains to population centers was necessary to spur renewable energy investment there.
Outgoing PSC chairman Robert Kenney said he was disappointed in Wednesday’s vote.
“Energy policy in the United States is evolving and it’s happening on the state level,” he said.
State commissions need to be on the forefront of that change, he added.
“I was not as disturbed that this did not go through a central planning process (via RTOs) ... and was hopeful we could have encouraged this new business model rather than going through the central planning model,” Kenney said.
They may still convince Missouri.
Commissioner Daniel Hall, who supported the line, said Clean Line could resubmit an application if it obtains more information that might sway regulators. “I fully hope they take us up on this invitation.”