MONROE CITY, Missouri – A plan to string high-voltage transmission lines 200 miles across the state of Missouri got a chilly reception from area landowners during the first public airing of the project Tuesday.
Over the course of several hours, farmers, business owners, politicians and organized labor representatives aired opinions about the $2.2 billion project, which aims to deliver 3,500 megawatts of cheap wind energy from the southwest Kansas plains to more populated areas hundreds of miles to the east.
The hearing was the first of a series of public meetings on the project being held across the state. While some in attendance support the jobs, taxes and clean energy that developers promised, coalitions of landowners opposed to the project, most of them wearing neon green T-shirts or stickers that said “Block GBE,” dominated the hearing.
The Grain Belt Express project is one of five long-haul transmission lines planned across the country by Houston-based Clean Line Energy Partners LLC. And not unlike most transmission projects crossing the rural landscape, it has raised the ire of farmers and other landowners along the proposed 206-mile route in Missouri.
Not unlike other large energy infrastructure projects, the case before Missouri regulators pits a private developer that stands to make millions of dollars by improving access to energy – in this case, mostly renewable energy – against the individual rights of property owners, many of whom depend on their land for income.
The Clean Line Energy project, in particular, has drawn support from the wind industry, which sees the line as a pathway to further expand in the East. It is opposed by the Missouri Farm Bureau.
For many landowners, the bond with property that has been in families for generations is an emotional one – a point made clear during the course of the hearing.
Ron Henke, a farmer from Salisbury, Missouri, broke down and wept briefly as he described how Clean Line’s proposed route would run through the exact place on his property where his son and daughter-in-law planned to build a home.
“Just to have someone come along and take that from us is beyond belief,” he said, making reference to the concern of some landowners that they will be forced through an eminent domain proceeding to sell easements for the project.
Costs and benefits
Clean Line Energy this spring filed for regulatory approval of the project in Missouri, one of four states that the Grain Belt Express project would span in whole or part.
Mark Lawlor, a director of development for Clean Line Energy, said in an interview at Tuesday’s hearing that the company so far has approvals from regulators in Kansas and Indiana. A ruling is expected from the Missouri commission by early 2015.
While the company hasn’t yet sought approval for the project in Illinois, an administrative judge in the state Monday issued a draft order that would give approval to a sister project, the Rock Island Express, if approved by the Illinois Commerce Commission. That project, too, faced landowner opposition.
In Missouri, landowners organized against Clean Line Energy even before the company filed a formal application with the PSC. More than 3,200 public comments were filed with the commission within a few months, most of them in opposition. And landowner groups have called on residents to pack public hearings.
Opponents cite a laundry list of concerns about the project, and some have complained about Clean Line Energy’s outreach efforts.
Most concerns expressed at the hearing revolved around potential devaluation of property that could go along with the project, from the aesthetics or loss of agricultural productivity.
David Carpenter of Monroe County, Missouri, the president of Eastern Missouri Landowners Alliance, a group formed to oppose the project, said the benefits of the transmission line are outweighed by the costs, which would include altering the panoramic view of cornfields and woods from his home.
“That power line would run across that view from horizon to horizon,” he said.
Others questioned the need for the project, and whether there’s adequate demand for additional wind power to the east – enough demand to justify the cost that will be borne by farmers and other landowners.
“Grain Belt says they’re going to bring power to Missouri. They mean through Missouri,” said Phillip Brown of Moberly, Missouri. “If the East Coast wants wind power, let them produce it locally.”
For its part, Clean Line Energy says the project presents numerous quantifiable benefits for the state, including a 500-megawatt interconnection near the Mississippi River that will help the state affordably move a little further away from the coal-fired electricity that Missouri depends on so heavily.
Power at an ‘effective price’
Aside from the economic benefits of jobs and taxes, Lawlor said the line can at current prices deliver wind energy to Missouri at between 4 and 4.5 cents per kilowatt-hour.
“If you are Ameren, or you are one of the munis or co-ops, that’s a very effective price,” he said.
Lawlor said many of the concerns and questions about the project that were aired at Tuesday’s hearing are ones the company hears frequently. The company is continuing to work with the owners of the 500 or so tracts of land that the project would cross.
“Typically, the more people learn about the project, the more supportive they are,” he said. “We’re going to need more infrastructure in Missouri. Our approach is to site it in a way that is respectful to people’s concerns.”
While outnumbered by opponents, several audience members told regulators they want to see the project move forward because it represents one of the few significant economic opportunities for a part of the state where population and tax revenues have been in decline.
Glenn Eagan, a county commissioner from nearby Shelbyville, Missouri, which is getting a sizable property tax boost from a new Enbridge Inc.’s oil pipeline that runs diagonally through the state, said all infrastructure projects – roads, pipelines, electric transmission lines and railroads – inconvenience someone, if not one property owner, then a neighbor.
But if landowners are paid a fair price for use of their land, there’s a larger obligation to allow projects that will benefit the greater good.
“Where would we be if we had stopped all of these projects many years ago?” he asked.
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