Now only a bunch of Missouri farmers stands in the way of a $2.2 billion, 780-mile transmission line to carry wind power from the Kansas high plains to Eastern power grids.
When Illinois regulators voted recently to approve the Grain Belt Express, joining Kansas and Indiana, that left Missouri as the sole holdout.
“We’re digging in, and we’re ready to fight,” Jennifer Gatrel said last week as she and her husband worked cattle on their ranch in Caldwell County. “We beat ’em once and we’ll beat ’em again.”
Observers who have watched this battle from the get-go probably figured it would come down to this: Clean Line Energy, the Houston-based company pushing the project, against a row of Missouri farmers stretching from Buchanan County in the west to Ralls County in the east.
Grain Belt Express is touted as a first-of-its-kind project and a major step in the fight for renewable energy against coal-fired power plants. Backers include chambers of commerce, labor unions and national environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club.
They point to benefits of renewable energy, cleaner air, better health, tax dollars and jobs. In June, PAR Electrical Contractors, a Kansas City company, was chosen to oversee an estimated 1,300 construction jobs to install Grain Belt transmission lines along the route.
Clean Line says it also will provide low-cost electricity to consumers, including 200,000 homes in Missouri.
But in July, the Missouri Public Service Commission denied Clean Line’s application, saying the project was not needed. The accompanying order noted farmers’ concerns about crops, pastures and difficulties in maneuvering large equipment around towers.
Clean Line appealed for a rehearing, and project director Mark Lawlor says the Illinois approval boosted Gran Belt’s chances.
“Three of the four states have said yes — clearly the landscape has changed,” Lawlor said.
Opponents hope for a successful appeal in Illinois. Meanwhile, Clean Line can concentrate on Missouri. It could go back to the Public Service Commission or seek remedy from the federal government. The country’s energy policy calls for increased wind power, and Kansas has been called the “Saudi Arabia of wind.”
But the policy doesn’t include a playbook on how to get around farmers who don’t want 150-foot-tall towers strung with high-voltage cable coming across their land. Some of the farms have been in families for generations.
Lawlor repeated the selling points last week. Missouri, he said, still gets 80 percent of its energy from fossil fuel.
“Missouri has some work to do, but we also know we have to do a better job of articulating these issues,” he said.
From the beginning, the state has been a hard sell for Clean Line. So much so, in fact, that little Polo, Mo. — population 500 or so, in Caldwell County — was the only town along the route where the company saw fit to open an office. That came after a barrage of criticism from the local newspaper.
Farmers in the area made clear they don’t want Grain Belt. On Thursday, Russ Pisciotta, a Caldwell County farmer and president of the statewide opposition group Block Grain Belt Express, countered criticism that opponents are blocking energy and environmental progress for the entire country.
“Grain Belt is a business venture,” Pisciotta said. “Clean Line is not a public utility to serve the common good. They want wind power in the East, I understand that. But some of the best wind resources in the country are off the Atlantic coast.
“Now it might cost a little more, but who’s being selfish? People there don’t want to look at turbines, so we have to work around those things forever?”
Clean Line is backed financially by National Grid, based in Great Britain and one of the largest energy companies in the world.
After the Illinois vote, Clean Line president Michael Skelly thanked the regulators for recognizing the “critical infrastructure project.” The state’s commerce commission voted 3-2 to approve Grain Belt, but opponents say the written dissent could serve as a basis for appeal on grounds that Clean Line received an expedited hearing even though it is not a public utility.
“This is a merchant transmission line,” Illinois farmer Joe Gleespen said last week. “Clean Line has no customers, and they should not have received an expedited hearing.
“We are not done fighting. Missouri is an inspiration to us.”
Gatrel, the Caldwell County rancher, said that years into this fight, signs opposing Grain Belt still stand along blacktops and gravel roads.
“We’re a bunch of old Southern farmers, and we’re in for the long term.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182