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After years of rejection, court battles and delays, a four-state transmission line that would connect western Kansas wind farms to the eastern power grid gained approval Wednesday from the Missouri state agency that regulates public utilities.
With the Grain Belt Express projected to cross properties of 570 Missouri landowners, the Missouri Landowners Alliance and Eastern Missouri Landowners Alliance said they plan to appeal the Public Service Commission’s order to the Missouri Court of Appeals, according to the opposition’s attorney Paul Agathen.
Though far from the last step, Wednesday’s unanimous vote by the five PSC commissioners in favor of granting the Grain Belt Express a certificate of conveniency and need -- giving it the ability to acquire property through eminent domain -- is the furthest the project has come in its quest to stretch a transmission line more than 200 miles through eight northern Missouri counties.
“There can be no debate that our energy future will require more diversity in energy resources, particularly renewable resources,” PSC commissioners said in a joint statement. “We are witnessing a worldwide, long-term and comprehensive movement towards renewable energy in general and wind energy specifically. Wind energy provides great promise as a source for affordable, reliable, safe and environmentally-friendly energy.”
The $2.35 billion project would span at total of 780 miles, starting from an area of wind-rich western Kansas that some call the “Saudi Arabia of wind.”
It would cross Missouri and Illinois and end in Indiana, where it would link to east coast power grids. An estimated 1.5 million homes a year could be powered by the energy it delivers.
Anxious to see the line completed are the 39 municipal utilities in Missouri, including Odessa and Harrisonville, that have pooled together and agreed to purchase wind power. Power could come as soon as 2023, according to Ewell Lawson, Missouri Public Utility Alliance (MPUA) vice president of governmental affairs.
By displacing the mostly coal energy those cities use, the MPUA calculated the cities would collectively save about $12.8 million every year for the first 20 years, Lawson said.
Even with state approval, the project faces significant hurdles and opposition.
It must gain the assent of commissioners of the eight Missouri counties the line plans to traverse: Buchanan, Clinton, Caldwell, Carroll, Chariton, Randolph, Monroe, and Ralls.
Grassroots efforts to shore up public opposition in those counties began long before Wednesday’s PSC decision, according to Jennifer Gatrel, Stop Grain Belt Express-Missouri coordinator and Caldwell County cattle farmer.
“We will continue the fight at the county level,” Gatrel said Wednesday. “This is just one battle in a larger war.”
Wiley Hibbard, the presiding commissioner of Ralls County and cattle farmer, said he ran for his seat on “the Grain Belt issue.” The unanswered questions make him uneasy with moving forward, he said.
“There’s nobody in Ralls County who likes it,” Hibbard said. “...what we hear from (Grain Belt) is, ‘We are here, we are going to build this, get out of our way.’”
Those in opposition also found fault with the PSC’s decision to grant a certificate to Grain Belt Express even though Chicago-based Invenergy announced in November of last year its intention to acquire the project.
“This decision sets precedent for private companies to buy land on the cheap and profit at the expense of Missouri citizens,” Blake Hurst, Missouri Farm Bureau president, said in a statement.
“The company is also clearly financially incapable of following through on its promises, and its acquisition by a potential financing partner has not been fully vetted. Allowing the project to proceed places hundreds of Missouri landowners at risk of having their land taken for a project that may never be completed.”
Invenergy is currently in the middle of seeking PSC approval to acquire the Grain Belt Express project, according to Invenergy spokeswoman Beth Conley.
“The Grain Belt Express project is made stronger through Invenergy’s participation because of our strong record of project execution, strong financial position, community partnerships, and landowner relationships,” Conley said in a statement. “Invenergy looks forward to the next step in the regulatory process before the PSC and to bringing low-cost power, quality jobs and new tax revenue to Missouri.”
The PSC’s order specifically cited an agreement between Grain Belt Express’s limited liability holding company and Invenergy as proof that the project could be financially funded.
“Invenergy’s cash balance as of December 31, 2017, was approximately six times greater than Clean Line’s cash balance as of the same date, and the book value of its equity is twenty times greater than Clean Line’s equity,” the order states. Clean Line Energy Partners is the Texas-based company that originally owned Grain Belt Express.
It listed landowner protections in its order, including the right to binding arbitration over disagreements in compensation. Grain Belt Express has also promised to establish a decommissioning fund if the project were not to come to fruition. If Grain Belt does not raise the capital it needs within 5 years, easements granted through eminent domain would be returned to their original owners.
The project has previously been denied twice by the PSC. The last time, the agency said it didn’t have the statutory authority to grant its approval before county commissioners. Its denial was appealed all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court, which last summer overturned the ruling.
Outside of Missouri, the project has hit snags. After being challenged in court, Illinois rescinded its approval, saying Grain Belt, without a physical presence in the state, didn’t qualify as a public utility.