ST. LOUIS — Construction is poised to begin soon on Ameren’s pair of wind projects in northern Missouri — investments worth a total of $1.2 billion.
Starting in September, a 400-megawatt facility will start to take shape in Schuyler and Adair counties, the energy company says. And slightly later in the fall, it expects the same will happen for a 300-megawatt wind farm in Atchison County, approved last week by state regulators. Once operational by the end of 2020, the two should account for about 10 percent of Ameren’s total power generation.
The progress will mark the first on-the-ground realization of the St. Louis-based utility’s largest-ever commitment to renewable energy, initially announced a couple of years ago.
While the company’s moves to add wind have kept pace with those original goals, there have been some bumps in the road. In late July, for instance, Ameren announced that it had canceled plans to develop a third wind farm — a 157-megawatt project in Atchison County — that would have required hundreds of millions of dollars in transmission upgrades for the electric grid to accommodate its power, according to company officials.
The project’s cancellation raised some immediate questions about whether similar complications could await — or unravel — Ameren’s plans to develop other wind facilities elsewhere.
“Do you think this was very much isolated to this project or is this kind of a wider theme that you’re seeing?” asked Julien Dumoulin-Smith, a Bank of America analyst, on an Ameren earnings call held just days later.
Ameren officials, though, say that the same issues don’t apply to the company’s two larger wind projects in northern Missouri — both of which have now secured approval from the state, and which were earlier in line to have transmission hurdles ironed out with the grid’s regional operators.
While those two projects are the priority now, Ameren will keep an eye on more opportunities to add wind energy, and also solar projects, moving forward.
“We’re not done kicking the tires of renewable energy projects, is my message,” Warner Baxter, Ameren’s chairman, president and CEO, said during the earnings call on Aug. 2.
Ameren said the scrapped Atchison County project ran into issues that were unrelated to those that have tripped up other transmission projects in Missouri, such as the multi-state Grain Belt Express, which has been held up for years by legal battles and right-of-way disputes.
“It was a cost-driven decision,” says Lucas Klein, Ameren Missouri’s director of engineering and project management for renewables. “The line that it was going to connect to could’ve taken the energy. Other parts of the system could not.”
Some environmental and renewable energy advocates also suggested that the project that faltered does not necessarily reflect more widespread challenges for wind energy in Missouri. They say that determining sites for wind farms or other energy projects is inherently complex, and that any number of roadblocks can arise.
“This stuff is complicated,” said Ashok Gupta, a Kansas City-based senior energy economist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I don’t think there’s any bigger lesson here other than you just have to keep trying and persist.”
But as the grid welcomes more renewable energy going forward, it will also need to experience transmission improvements to facilitate that growth.
Klein, for instance, compares weaving transmission for new sources of renewables onto the grid to adding new on-ramps to highways.
“There may need to be more of those in the future to continue to spur the growth of renewables,” he said.
That’s a problem that will extend beyond Ameren to the regional and national entities that oversee the grid — a system that was built to deliver power from key nodes, like power plants, instead of from widely distributed sources like wind farms or solar projects. A transition will be needed, according to Klein.
“The transmission system does have to change along with the mix of generation,” he said.