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PSC hearings on Grain Belt transmission line begin

PSC hearings on Grain Belt transmission line begin


A 260 foot tall wind tower is framed behind electrical transmission equipment at the Elk River Wind farm near Beaumont, Kan. May 19, 2006. The tower is one of 100 at the wind farm which is the largest in Kansas. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Missouri regulators began hearing testimony Monday on a proposed transmission line that would bring electricity from Kansas wind farms across Missouri to population centers in the east.

Clean Line Energy Partners, based in Houston, seeks permission to erect a 750-mile, high-voltage transmission line that would deliver 3,500 megawatts to Illinois, Indiana and states farther east. The company also says as many as 500 megawatts would be available for Missouri customers.

Clean Line wants the Missouri Public Service Commission to grant it public utility status to construct the so-called “Grain Belt Express” transmission line. The request has sparked opposition from some landowners and government officials who are concerned the company will use eminent domain to acquire farmland in the eight Missouri counties the line would pass through.

The PSC’s own staff says Clean Line has not met the criteria necessary for the commission to grant a certificate of convenience and necessity, which would authorize the project and allow it to condemn land. The PSC staff contends Clean Line has not proven there is a need for the line, nor that it promotes the public interest of Missourians.

While mostly pitted as a fight involving landowners concerned over eminent domain, the project also involves the complex politics of federal electric transmission regulation and complicated wholesale energy markets.

The Grain Belt Express would bypass transmission lines owned by utilities that generators would otherwise have to pay to move electricity across the country. It is also skipping a process in which transmission project proposals are solicited in a public process and chosen by a regional grid operator.

In Illinois, Clean Line is facing resistance from the Chicago utility ComEd for another transmission project — the Rock Island Clean Line that would cross Iowa and northern Illinois. In filings with the Illinois Commerce Commission, ComEd called the Rock Island a “speculative and indefinite” project that hasn’t even locked in buyers of the wind power.

ComEd’s parent, Exelon, owns power plants that would compete with the wind energy Clean Line plans to deliver in deregulated electricity markets. Exelon’s nuclear fleet, in particular, has struggled to compete with lower-cost sources of electricity.

In Missouri, Ameren Missouri and Kansas City Power and Light have not taken positions on the Grain Belt project. The PSC staff has indicated that customers of Ameren Missouri could see higher fuel charges if the Grain Belt line reduced wholesale transmission costs. Ameren’s profits from off-system sales into the wholesale market offset customer fuel charges.

“Using the data available as modeled by Grain Belt Express, I would expect Ameren Missouri’s average net cost of energy to be higher with the Project than without the Project,” PSC staff economist Sarah Kliethermes wrote.

One of the groups opposing the project is the Missouri Landowners Alliance, which formed earlier this year and counts the Missouri Farm Bureau and Missouri Cattlemens Association among its supporters.

Paul Agathen, a former Ameren Missouri attorney who is serving as the Missouri Landowners Alliance lawyer, questioned the project’s economic benefits Monday. Agathen asked Michael Skelly, Clean Line’s president, whether the transmission project would displace coal-fired electricity and lead to job losses in coal-heavy Missouri.

“We acknowledge that a cleaner energy mix will involve some transitions,” Skelly said.

In testimony filed with the PSC, the Landowners Alliance argues that it is more advantageous to develop wind power in states served by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which manages the grid in eastern Missouri and several other Midwestern states, than in Kansas. Kansas is not in MISO’s territory.

“It is less destructive to private property in Missouri, and it does not involve a high-risk merchant project whose current owners may or may not be in the picture when the line goes into service,” the group wrote in testimony to the PSC.

Hearings are expected to continue through the week, and the PSC could issue a decision before the end of the year.

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