MENDOTA – A real life drama unfolded at the Mendota High School auditorium last week when hundreds of people gathered to voice their opinion on Rock Island Clean Line’s application for public utility status. The Sept. 18 public forum was facilitated by Illinois Commerce Commission public hearing officer and Homeland Security director, Robert Bensko.
The Mendota hearing was a chance for the public to have their opinion entered into the official Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) transcript and many people took advantage of the opportunity. Individuals traveled from across the state to attend and some people familiar with similar projects elsewhere even came from out-of-state.
Rock Island Clean Line’s (RICL) plan to construct a high-voltage electric line across Illinois farmland was presented to the public two years ago. Touted as a means to carry wind-powered energy from Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota through Illinois and on to eastern states, RICL said the project would “create thousands of jobs for local residents, generate millions of dollars in state and local tax revenues and address the nation’s ongoing efforts to increase energy security.” But farmers had many questions surrounding those claims and the answers they received were often troubling with little or no data to back them. If Illinois farmland were to be sacrificed, would the high-voltage lines actually benefit the state?
Bensko opened the hearing by advising everyone that people would be called on to speak in the order they signed in that evening. Although people were still signing in at 7 p.m., the hearing began on schedule. “We have so many people here tonight, I want to try to give everyone who wants to speak the chance to do so,” Bensko told the standing room only crowd. “If you do not get to speak tonight, you can write your testimony down and e-mail it or send it to the chief clerk’s office by mail.”
Bensko went on to explain that the public hearing is only one part of the process to deal with the proposal. “An administrative law judge will review all the testimony that is filed and make a recommendation to a five-member commission,” he said, noting that testimony from RICL and ICC experts has been filed and is available on the ICC website. “After all additional proposals and responses have been filed, the parties meet in person to cross examine witnesses on their sworn testimony.”
First to speak was Jimmy Glotfelty, executive vice president and co-founder of Clean Line Energy Partners, who was given the opportunity to reiterate Clean Line’s proposal. “Clean Line strongly believes this project will bring major benefits to Illinois and our nation,” Glotfelty said. “ The benefits are low cost energy, new jobs and other economic drivers for our communities. We recognize there is a tension between the benefits we expect and the impacts of this transmission route. We worked very hard to develop the least impactful route but unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a transmission line with no impacts at all. We expect to have reasonable questions and comments. I look forward to answering those tonight or as this process continues.”
Glotfelty said as a company, they are developing five DC (direct current) transmission lines. “RICL is a 500-mile overhead line that will enable about 3,500 megawatts of new wind energy to be delivered into the transmission grid in Illinois and states further east,” he said. “We will need 145-200 feet right of way for the line. A $300 million converter station will be built in Grundy County [near Morris] and will generate millions for local schools and governments.”
Claims of other economic benefits to Illinois and surrounding states were outlined by Glotfelty. “RICL will support manufacturing jobs, create thousands of construction jobs and jobs for suppliers, trucking companies, concrete companies, and re-bar companies,” he said. “We have a commitment to buy conductor from Southwire. They will make all the electric conductor for this line in Flora, Ill. That will employ lots of people for many, many years. We met with local construction partners, many are here tonight.”
Glotfelty said consumers will also benefit from competition in the electricity market. “Our studies show in the first year, RICL can save the wholesale market $325 million,” he said.
Additionally, to offset the burden to counties that host the line, RICL has offered each county $7,000 per mile each year for the next 20 years. Glotfelty also addressed landowner compensation saying their compensation package is fair. “There is a lot of misinformation out there,” he said in closing. “I look forward to setting the record straight.”
Next to speak was Phillip Nelson, president of the Illinois Farm Bureau, which represents 82,000 members. “We are opposed to the project and have intervened in this case before the ICC,” Nelson said. “We have four main concerns and this is why we want the ICC to deny RICL’s request for public utility status and construction of the project.”
Nelson’s first point was lack of a demonstrated need for the line. “Clean Line is a well-connected start up company with a business plan to build a sole purpose DC line across prime Illinois farmland. What the ICC has before it is a merchant line with no wind farms to generate electricity in Iowa and no subscribers to purchase the hypothetical electricity to be generated,” Nelson said. “No one between western Iowa and the end of the line has access to the power or can connect to Clean Line’s proposed transmission island. The cart is before the horse.”
Nelson said neither PJM nor MISO, the two regional transmission organizations in Illinois, have determined that this project is needed. “Several transmission lines have been proposed across the state of Illinois,” he said. “You cannot build these without crossing farmland, but when eight lines are proposed, the company must establish a need for the line. The ICC needs to take a hard look at projects that don’t go through a needs analysis before MISO or PJM.”
Nelson also emphasized that RICL should not be granted public utility status, which would allow eminent domain in the future. “The ICC should not grant public utility status to a private company that has not built a single transmission line, owns no utility assets, and has no track record on which anyone can rely,” he stated. “RICL already said if this project qualifies for cost allocation, they will seek it. If that happens, customers will be stuck paying for all or part of the project. Sounds like bait and switch.”
Third, Nelson said the proposed route does not follow existing road corridors, carves up prime farmland and goes the shortest distance between two points. “In many cases it crosses farmland on the diagonal and doesn’t follow property or section lines, which makes it even more difficult to farm,” he said. “Prime farmland should not be split by transmission lines. It impacts the ability to apply pesticides, use irrigation and causes impaction and damage to our drainage tiles.”
Last, Nelson addressed the use of lattice structures, which take “far more out of production” than monopoles. “We want the ICC to hold an inquiry into all proposed transmission lines in the state,” he said. “It would help everyone understand better the need and value [of such projects].”
Members of the public then had their chance to speak with many voicing their opposition to the project.
Allyssa Dolder, student and FFA member from Serena: “My sister and I are the fifth generation to live on the Dolder family farm that RICL wants to desecrate. I don’t understand why Illinois would allow wealthy investors from another state to increase their personal wealth at a cost to Illinois taxpayers and residents. Very few Illinois residents will be able to use this power. I would like written reassurance that Illinois taxpayers will never pay for this project through price allocation.”
Megan Faber, farmer: “I oppose. This has been our family farm since 1855. Farming techniques are evolving and this line would prohibit our ability to keep up. This is the first time a private company is trying to gain eminent domain in Illinois. What kind of precedent will this set? Please consider families like mine who have worked for years to build up their family businesses only to be torn down by a greedy private company.”
Mary Auchstatter, farmer: “The majority of landowners affected are elderly and I represent them. Many are widows on small farms. They have given up land for pipelines, roads, utility companies and even an airport – more than their share. Now, Clean Line wants more. They depend on this income but feel helpless against these Texas billionaires. To them technology is bewildering, terminology is confusing. Most don’t know how to use the internet. Clean Line knows this and uses it to their advantage. When we told Clean Line our land was not for sale, they gave the impression they already had eminent domain. When we asked about crop damage, RICL said by the time they reached our farm they would know what they were doing.”
Scott Thorson: “Their message has been inconsistent from the start. RICL is a start up venture capital company that currently makes nothing, creates no economic value added, and I fear this company’s true intentions. The people at the informational meetings were outside contractors but they did not say that. RICL had already applied for public utility status. We weren’t told that. They do not have to use clean energy on lines. It’s not that I oppose this line on my property, it’s not even going on my property. I oppose RICL for doing business in Illinois. This is not the way they should be operating in our state. We don’t need this.”
John Cantlin: “I and three of my sons are landowners that will be affected. I strongly urge the ICC to turn down the request for public utility status. RICL has to show a public utility need in Illinois. They have not done that. Our natural resource is soil – something there will not be any more of. They are asking for a permanent easement – in perpetuity. I don’t know how long forever is, but I think it’s a long time. It is wrong for them to come to Illinois and take out of production in perpetuity the best farmland in the world. We’re all in favor of employment and the environment but this is not the project.”
Mary Mauch: I want to enter into the record the number of opposition that is here tonight. I would estimate the applause is about 80 percent opposed, which would be about 400 people here in opposition.
Interspersed throughout the comments were staunch supporters of RICL. Pat Halloran, superintendent of Morris Community High School and Kathy Perry, superintendent of Saratoga Consolidated School District, voiced their support. Halloran said their schools would get a one-time payment of over $4 million from RICL in addition to subsequent tax payments. Representatives from the City of Morris and from Channahon also spoke in support, saying RICL would give a tremendous boost to the economics of the area and to their public services.
Additionally, several businesses, labor unions and construction workers expressed their support saying this project would help lower the unemployment rate, increase business and offer energy security using “clean” energy.
Tom Wolf, representing the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said reconciliation would be important in moving forward. “Rural landowners bear the brunt of an energy project going across private land but our economy and quality of life doesn’t exist if we don’t [do this],” he said. “Energy doesn’t magically appear like pixie dust. If the ICC approves this, I implore landowners to work with Clean Line.”
By the time the hearing ended at 10 p.m., less than half of those signed in to speak were able to do so. However, people may still submit their comments for the official transcript (Rock Island Clean Line Docket #12-0560) in several ways.
Those who attended the hearing at MHS but were turned away should state this when submitting their comments. E-mail Bensko at firstname.lastname@example.org or mail to Robert R. Bensko, 527 East Capitol Ave., Springfield, IL 62701.
Comments can also be submitted at www.icc.illinois.gov (on the front page, see public comment option) or call (800) 524-0795.
As a reminder, individuals should make a copy of their comments as a record so they can verify the comments were received and are part of the transcript. Anyone not sure they handed their comments to the correct person on Sept. 18 should resend them to Bensko and indicate they are duplicates to make sure they reached him.
To make a comment not connected to the forum transcript or for more information on submitting comments, visit www.BlockRICL.com.
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