The small Mississippi River city of Hannibal, Mo., best known as the site of Mark Twain’s boyhood home, could play a big role in a developer’s effort to win regulatory approval for a $2.2 billion wind energy superhighway across the Midwest.
Houston-based Clean Line Energy Partners has worked for years to develop the 770-mile direct-current transmission line that would connect yet-to-be-built wind farms in western Kansas to power markets in the eastern United States.
Clean Line has received regulatory approval from three of the four states that the line would cross. The exception is Missouri, where the Public Service Commission last summer denied the company’s request (EnergyWire, July 2, 2015).
Normally, a merchant transmission developer would secure regulatory approvals before going in search of customers. But given last summer’s adverse ruling, “we need to kind of jump ahead and get some of those Missouri customers lined up first,” said Mark Lawlor, director of development for Clean Line’s Grain Belt Express project.
“We are discussing options with Hannibal and a number of other utilities in Missouri to lay out what the value proposition is here,” he said.
Lawlor didn’t name any of the other utilities the company has met with. But he said Clean Line has a compelling offer for Hannibal, a city of 17,000 about two hours north of St. Louis.
Clean Line, which made a presentation last week to the Hannibal Board of Public Works, says it can deliver Kansas wind energy to a 500-megawatt converter station planned 20 miles from the city at an all-in cost of less than 3 cents per kilowatt-hour. That’s well below the 4.5 cents to 6 cents the city pays now under a contract with Dynegy Inc.
The company’s pitch to Hannibal includes an opportunity to purchase a stake in the converter station and 25 MW of transmission capacity on the Grain Belt Express line that could be used to deliver energy.
It would be similar to a 50-MW agreement with East Texas electric cooperatives last spring involving another Clean Line high-voltage direct-current project, the Plains and Eastern Clean Line.
“Hannibal is looking at that ownership option, but it is not the only [option],” Lawlor said, adding that the town could also opt to pay for transmission service and enter into a power contract with one of the Kansas wind developers.
Robert Stevenson, general manager of the Hannibal Board of Public Works, said the city is indeed interested in owning a piece of the project and is looking at the legal structure of such an arrangement and weighing the pros and cons.
For Hannibal, investing in Clean Line would complement another controversial energy investment made almost a decade ago – a 50-MW ownership stake in the Prairie State coal-fired power plant in southern Illinois.
Stevenson said the energy prices being discussed by Clean Line are attractive and better than other opportunities available to purchase wind energy on the regional power grid.
“It represents a savings to us if Clean Line can perform like they say they can,” he said.
For now, the city is evaluating whether to enter into a letter of participation with Clean Line. The city wouldn’t have make any financial commitment until and unless the company wins final approval for the project, Stevenson said.
For Clean Line, which has been working on the Grain Belt Express project for six years, the key is being able to go back before the Missouri PSC and demonstrate additional benefits for the state beyond what was originally presented.
The company could also seek federal approval for the project through a little-known provision, Section 1222 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Clean Line is already seeking to use that process to try to win approval for the Plains and Eastern project, which would stretch from the Oklahoma Panhandle to western Tennessee. But Lawlor said the preference is to work through the state approval process.
Clean Line has said the Grain Belt Express project would generate more than 1,000 construction jobs, property taxes and inexpensive wind energy. The company plans to deliver 500 MW at the eastern Missouri converter station while delivering 3,500 MW to the PJM Interconnection, which operates the bulk power grid across parts of 13 states in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic.
For all the benefits promised by Clean Line, the project also stirred significant opposition among landowners across eight rural counties who feared a drop in property values and the threat of being forced to sell easements through eminent domain proceedings if Clean Line were given utility status (EnergyWire, Nov. 12, 2014).
Two landowner groups formally challenged the project during evidentiary hearings before the PSC and continue to monitor developments in Hannibal and elsewhere in anticipation of Clean Line refiling an application at the PSC.
The case decided last year received more public comments than any other before the commission, and more than 3,000 people turned out at eight public hearings across the proposed route to voice opposition, said Jennifer Gatrel, a spokeswoman for one of the landowner groups, Block Grain Belt Express.
“There continues to be active opposition,” she said. “We very much are in this for the long term. I think it’s a precedent-setting case.”
Clean Power Plan is a factor
Another factor that could weigh into the commission’s consideration if Clean Line refiles its application is U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut carbon emissions from power plants.
EPA issued the final rule Aug. 3, a month after the PSC’s denial of the Grain Belt Express project, and will require Missouri to cut coal use and increase its reliance on renewables.
Current PSC Chairman Daniel Hall, one of two commissioners who voted to approve the project last summer, favored granting a late request by Clean Line to delay a vote until the final carbon rule was issued.
Hall, who hadn’t yet been named chairman at the time, also said he hoped the company would refile its application.
Lawlor said the Grain Belt Express project alone wouldn’t put Missouri in compliance with the Clean Power Plan. But replacing 500 MW of the oldest, least-efficient coal generation with an equal amount of clean, inexpensive wind energy would be a significant first step toward that goal.
“It’s coming to a head, and Missouri has a long way to go” to meet the carbon reduction goals, he said.
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