COLUMBIA – A 750-mile interstate power line promises to deliver wind-generated electricity to Columbia at nearly half the price the city now pays. But the savings cannot be certain until the line is built and contracts are proposed.
Columbia would pay $20 to $30 less per megawatt-hour for electricity, according to Clean Line Energy Partners, the company behind the project.
Clean Line’s proposed Grain Belt Express transmission line would connect wind energy producers in southwestern Kansas to Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. Clean Line is going through the state approval process before it can build and operate the line in Missouri.
Compared to the prices Columbia Water and Light pays for other energy sources, the Grain Belt Express price would be a bargain if the price estimates hold when the electricity becomes available in 2018.
Columbia Water and Light buys wind energy from Crystal Lake Wind Farm in Iowa for $56.76 per megawatt-hour and Bluegrass Ridge Wind Farm in northwestern Missouri for $67.76 per megawatt-hour, including transmission costs.
When the Columbia City Council voiced its support for the line at its Oct. 6 meeting, a Clean Line representative said the company expects wind energy transmitted through the line will cost about $36 per megawatt-hour, including transmission costs.
The council voted 5-1 to endorse the Grain Belt Express as an “economically feasible renewable energy options to serve city of Columbia customers.”
Clean Line needs permission from the Missouri Public Service Commission before it can begin building and operating the transmission line. Commission staff would not comment on the firm’s price estimates for wind-generated electricity in the future.
The proposed price is lower than that of the non-renewable energy Columbia currently uses. Most of Columbia’s electricity comes from long-term coal contracts. On average, this electricity costs about $40 to $45 per megawatt-hour, including transmission. Prices on additional energy during times of increased demand can be higher.
Wind is unpredictable, and prices for wind-generated energy can fluctuate. This usually happens in the summer when the wind slows, but demand for electricity increases.
Clean Line spokesman Mark Lawlor said the wind in southwestern Kansas is particularly robust, and, because of limited transmission options, producers have more energy than they can sell.
Some aren’t certain the savings will be as much as promised.
It’s impossible to know if Clean Line’s low price is realistic until the line is built, and contracts are proposed to the city, said Jim Windsor, utility financial manager at Columbia Water and Light.
“Clean Line’s proposed wind energy price could be possible,” Windsor said. “But there are many issues in dealing with an energy market that would have to be addressed in the contract to ensure there isn’t greater financial risk for the city.”
If the line is constructed, companies trying to sell wind energy to Columbia through the Grain Belt Express will still be required to propose contracts through Water and Light’s usual procedure, department spokeswoman Connie Kacprowicz said.
As it awaits state approval, Clean Line has been pursuing endorsements from cities and utilities around the state in an effort to demonstrate Missouri’s interest in renewable energy.
Columbia gets about 7 percent of its electricity from renewable sources such as wind, burning waste wood from sawmills and gas from landfills. That needs to increase to 15 percent renewable energy by 2018 and 25 percent by 2023 to meet the city’s renewable goals.
The Grain Belt Express “has a great deal of potential to get Columbia, Missouri, a large amount of low-cost, renewable energy,” Mayor Bob McDavid said.
It would benefit Columbia to have the transmission line as a source for future clean energy, Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe said.
The transmission line won’t be built soon enough to help meet Columbia’s 2018 goal. The final decision from the Missouri Public Service Commission is expected in January. If approved, construction likely would not begin until early 2017 and transmission start in 2018, Lawlor said.
Columbia’s Water & Light Advisory Board also endorsed the project at its Sept. 9 meeting after being approached by Clean Line.
“The board is sympathetic to renewables,” Hank Ottinger, a member of the Water and Light Board, said. “So we were inclined to support the measure.”
Other groups have publicly supported the project. The Carroll County Commission sent a letter of support for the line to the the Public Service Commission in September. The county commission’s letter lauded the project for the jobs, renewable energy and tax revenue it would bring to the state.
The Missouri chapter of the Sierra Club also voiced enthusiasm for the project in September.
“We usually oppose pipelines and transmission lines,” John Hickey, director of the club’s Missouri chapter, said.
“The Grain Belt Express is a step toward a cleaner energy economy in the state,” he said. “Only 1 percent of Missouri’s energy comes from wind. Missouri is a laggard compared to Kansas, that uses 20 percent, and Iowa, that uses 15 percent wind energy.”
State authorities in Kansas and Indiana have already approved the sections of the 750-mile power line in their states.
The proposed path of the line crosses 206 miles of north-central Missouri, across Buchanan, Clinton, Caldwell, Carroll, Chariton, Randolph, Monroe and Ralls counties.
The Public Service Commission held public hearings in each of the eight counties crossed by the proposed transmission line. A final hearing on the project will begin in Jefferson City on Nov. 10.
Groups such as BlockGBE, the Missouri Farm Bureau and the Missouri Landowners Alliance oppose the use of eminent domain to obtain the land the transmission line will be built on and say the value of land crossed will be reduced.
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser was the one dissenting vote on the city council’s referendum.
“They’re attempting to sway the Public Service Commission decision, and it’s not our place to get involved in a political issue,” Nauser said. “It’s unfair to citizens, communities and counties affected by this who haven’t had a say.”
Clean Line has made available plans to pay landowners for 150-200 foot wide easements to build the their 200-foot-high transmission towers. The company has already paid 20 percent of market value of some easements to landowners with an agreement to pay the other 80 percent after construction, Lawlor said.
“Our goal is to communicate and negotiate with landowners,” he said. “We want to do everything we can to avoid using eminent domain.”
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