The Missouri Public Service Commission voted Wednesday to deny a Texas company’s plan for a controversial $2.2 billion, 780-mile transmission line to carry wind power from the Kansas high plains across Missouri to eastern power grids.
Backers, including environmentalists, had pushed the first-of-its kind project as a major step in the fight for renewable energy against coal-fired power plants. The “Grain Belt Express” was also touted as a way to create jobs and provide low-cost electricity to consumers, including 200,000 homes in Missouri.
But while U.S. energy policy calls for increased wind power, it doesn’t include a federal right of way to get those power lines past Missouri farmers who didn’t want it coming across their land.
They dug in their boots, planted signs, organized and packed hearings around the state.
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The PSC voted 3-2 Wednesday to deny Houston-based Clean Line Energy’s application, saying the project was not needed. The accompanying order noted farmers’ concerns about crops, pastures and maneuvering large equipment around towers.
Evidence showed, the order said, that “actual benefits to the general public from the Project are outweighed by the burdens on affected landowners.”
Clean Line Energy said Wednesday it’s fight for the power route is not over.
A week before the vote, Loren Sprouse — along with two brothers, he farms land in Caldwell County that’s been in the family since 1919 — said of Grain Belt: “This is a giant land grab by a huge company. They (Clean Line) are a private, for-profit company trying to masquerade as a public utility.”
After Wednesday’s vote, Sprouse said: “Now we can get back to the important business of feeding America.”
The PSC vote clearly disappointed, and frustrated, Clean Line officials, who only last week announced a Kansas City company would build Grain Belt.
“The commissioners were confused about the benefits to the state of Missouri,” Mark Lawlor, the project’s development director, said after the vote.
Company officials had pushed the 1,300 construction jobs. They said Grain Belt would have brought low-cost renewable energy to the state and generated an additional $6.4 million in property taxes for the eight Missouri counties it intended to cross. That would be money for schools, roads, hospitals and emergency services.
The company still has options to save the project. It could go to court or even seek federal intervention with the U.S. Department of Energy.
Lawlor said the company was not ready to walk away.
The Grain Belt fight had shaped up to be an urban-rural conflict. But it also pit the future against the past.
Clean Line uses the latest energy technology and was backed by chambers of commerce, labor unions and national environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club. They pushed the future of renewable energy, cleaner air, better health, jobs and tax dollars.
The farmers talked about what 150-foot towers strung with high-voltage cable on 200-foot easements would look like coming across their fields and pastures. Some said it would ruin the land for the next generation.
Also, the fact that the proposed route avoided cities and towns made farmers feel like they were viewed as easy pickings.
“They (Clean Line) act like they can do whatever they want and that don’t sit well with a lot of us up here,” Logan Kelly, who with his brother recently bought a piece of the old family place near Braymer in Caldwell County, said a week ago.
“They tell us what a great deal we’re getting,” he said. “But you take a pencil to it, and there’s nothing good about it.”
The opponents were quick to say they have nothing against wind energy, but if folks back east want it they can make their own.
That’s where the maps with the purple blotches came in.
Maps charting annual wind speed show it blows hardest and more often along a strip from the Dakotas south to Texas. A big purple blotch, noting high wind, covers southwestern Kansas, an area dubbed “the Saudi Arabia of wind.”
So that’s where companies like Clean Line have gone. Grain Belt is only one of the company’s routes. If the country is to reach its goal of 20 percent wind power by 2030, Kansas wind must be exported, Lawlor argued.
For more than two years, Clean Line employees had driven blacktops and gravel roads trying to reach easement agreements with farmers. But of 500 or so tracts of land between Buchanan County on the west and Ralls County on the east, the company came to terms with fewer than 50 owners.
Lawlor had likened the conflict to the 1930s, when electric power came to rural America and many farmers didn’t want the intrusion.
“We will always have opposition,” Lawlor said before Wednesday’s vote. “But people opposed to this now turned on their lights this morning and that power came across somebody’s land.”
The transmission line would have required an easement 150 to 200 feet wide. Clean Line offered to pay 100 percent market value per acre even though farmers could continue to use the land for crops and cattle.
Depending on what style of tower, the company offered annual payments of $500 to $1,500 or one-time payments of $6,000 to $18,000.
Opponents wanted no part of it. They argued that wind farms could be built off the Atlantic coast to serve the East, an idea deemed doable by experts, if not for the exorbitant cost. Opponents also thought the lines could be buried, though industry experts say that’s not practical for such high voltage.
And some opponents simply distrusted big business. Clean Line is backed by National Grid, based in Great Britain and one of the largest international energy companies in the world.
Jennifer Gatrel, a leader of the grassroots opposition group Block Grain Belt Express Missouri, described the victory as democracy in action.
“You can stand up to corporate interests and protect your property rights,” she said.
John Hickey, head of the Sierra Club in Missouri, said there are too many power lines in the state, but he was a big supporter of Grain Belt Express.
The country needs low-cost wind from Kansas, Hickey said, and projects like Grain Belt would eventually rid the country of dirty emissions from coal-fired electricity.
Of course transmission lines can be disruptive, he added.
“But you have to look at the impact on public health and air quality,” Hickey said.
“Having electricity has its price.”
Clean Line Energy said after Wednesday’s decision that its efforts to build the transmission line were not over.
The company could go to court or even seek federal intervention with the U.S. Department of Energy.