Developers of a cross-state transmission line say there is overwhelming demand for capacity to transmit wind power, but opposition still threatens to undermine the project.
Clean Line Energy Partners, the Houston company behind construction of the 780-mile Grain Belt Express line, said it has received requests to transmit 20,600 megawatts of electricity on the line, more than 4.5 times what it can carry.
Ten wind generation companies want to sell 3,300 megawatts to Missouri customers, far more than the 500 megawatts the project can deliver to the state.
The company disclosed the amounts in late March as part of an open process to sign up customers required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Despite the apparent demand, Clean Line still faces hurdles to winning approval for its route across Missouri:
• The Missouri Public Service Commission must sign off on the route. Clean Line hopes the PSC will decide this summer.
• Four of the eight county commissions along the line’s route through Missouri have rescinded their approval of the project.
• And a bill in the Missouri House could keep transmission developers like Clean Line from building in the state.
Missouri’s response to the project could set a precedent as more companies look to transmit wind energy from the sparsely populated Great Plains to the country’s big cities. Grain Belt is crossing Missouri en route to the Illinois-Indiana border, and the other states on the route have all granted approval to a Clean Line project (Illinois just received the Grain Belt application this month, but it has already approved another Clean Line project).
Opponents of the project acknowledge Grain Belt probably won’t be the last company that seeks to run wires through the state’s rural farmland to connect wind power to the electric grid. With the amount of electricity wind generators want to wire through Grain Belt, it certainly looks like there could be similar projects coming through Missouri in future years.
“We never really thought that the supply would be the challenge to the project,” Mark Lawlor, Clean Line’s director of development, said in a phone interview.
Indeed, the U.S. Department of Energy projects big investments from wind developers. Already, wind is projected to serve about 7 percent of U.S. electricity demand by next year and rise to 25 percent over the next 35 years.
But many landowners along the route in Missouri and Illinois are opposed to the project. If the PSC signs off on it, Clean Line would be given the same power as utilities and could use eminent domain if it can’t reach agreements for easements.
“There’s a saying here in the country that their name is mud, and Clean Line’s name is very dirty in all the impacted counties,” said Jennifer Gatrel, a Caldwell County landowner who heads a group dubbed Block Grain Belt Express Missouri.
She pointed to disclosures the company submitted to the PSC last week saying it had only reached easement agreements with the owners of 45 tracts of property, though it passes through hundreds in the state.
“They are very strongly working with people trying to get easements signed,” Gatrel said. “And the fact that they were not able to do so is indicative that people will not voluntarily do business with them.”
Clean Line is not pursuing agreements yet, Lawlor said, and only very eager landowners have signed up thus far. A more concerted effort will start if and when the PSC grants approval to its route.
That effort will include convincing commissioners who rescinded their approval of the project to get on board again.
Lawlor said the company was “confident” it would work out any issues with the county commissions, arguing county siting approval is an administrative function that must be granted if certain conditions are met.
“It’s not a political decision that the counties get to use as sort of a veto over infrastructure,” he said. “I think they all know that, and they realize that.”
A push in the Missouri Legislature could also derail the effort. Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Frankford, sponsored a bill to keep merchant transmission developers such as Clean Line from using eminent domain in the state.
At issue is Clean Line’s relatively novel business model – it assumes all the risk for signing up customers, unlike a more typical transmission development chosen by a regional grid operator. Typical transmission projects go through an extensive planning process and are chosen by grid operators. If chosen, their developers are repaid by increasing electricity rates on customers deemed to benefit.
Hansen’s bill would require transmission developers to go through that process.
“This utility company is basically operating outside of the processes that we have in the state,” Hansen said.
But Grain Belt is crossing multiple grid operators and multiple states, and experts say the grid managers haven’t perfected their process for evaluating interregional projects.
In Missouri alone, there are three different electric grid managers that operate different parts of the state: one in Kansas City Power and Light’s territory, one in Ameren’s territory, and one for everyone else.
For a line that crossed all three and wanted ratepayer reimbursement, each would have to agree the project was necessary and haggle over how much customers in each territory should pay to reimburse the developer. That kind of coordination is difficult, Clean Line says, which is why it’s assuming all the risk and selling space to power generators directly.
“Missouri’s stuck in the middle of three of these systems, which is a very inefficient process of looking at the state as a whole,” Lawlor said. “This bill would wipe out merchant transmission lines in a state that probably makes the strongest case for merchant transmission lines.”
Hansen’s bill faces a steep climb to pass before the session ends next month. However, Gatrel and Hansen both said they would push for passage next session, and they count the powerful Missouri Farm Bureau as an ally.
“I guarantee there will be another one (cross-state transmission project) after this,” Hansen said. “Whether we get this on the books this year or next year, I don’t think this issue is going to go away.”
Grain Belt, meanwhile, says it has the support of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and large employers like Hubbell Power systems in Centralia and ABB Inc.’s St. Louis plant, which will supply millions of dollars in material for the project.
The Columbia, Mo., City Council recently endorsed the line after a recommendation by its city-owned utility board. The city has its own renewable energy target, and it hopes to buy some of the newly transmitted wind power.
There are few options available for wind developers in Kansas to get their electricity to market, Lawlor said, and they’re waiting on projects like Grain Belt.
Grain Belt Express “absolutely is critical to the future of the industry, particularly in the middle part of the country,” he said.
The bill is HB1027.
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