Two transmission line projects that promoters say are needed to connect wind generation to the electric grid could get different treatment from Missouri regulators.
Both are proposals to expand transmission infrastructure in order to prepare for coal power plant retirements and the growth of renewable energy. Both projects have spurred loud opposition from farmers and rural landowners along the routes who don’t want to sell easements for unsightly and inconvenient transmission line poles.
But the projects have come from very different companies.
One is from a traditional utility company: St. Louis-based Ameren Corp.’s transmission subsidiary. Ameren Transmission went through the traditional process and got the regional grid operator to say its 100-mile Mark Twain line was a necessary project. As a result, if it wins approval from local authorities, ratepayers across the region will reimburse Ameren for the costs of the Northeast Missouri line.
At least three of five Missouri Public Service Commissioners indicated this week they thought the project met its criteria for a certificate of convenience and necessity, which would give the utility the right to use eminent domain if it has to. A final vote will be in the coming weeks.
It was on a 3-2 vote last summer that the PSC derailed Clean Line Energy Partners’ Grain Belt Express transmission line. The transmission line would have spanned 780 miles and crossed Missouri in order to pipe wind energy from Kansas to customers further east. It won approval from Kansas, Illinois and Indiana regulators, but Missouri’s opposition halted the project.
Clean Line, however, isn’t a traditional utility. Instead of going through a grid operator’s planning process, Clean Line says it will assume the risk of building the line and sign up customers and generators independently. And most of the 4,000 megawatts would be delivered to states east of Missouri, where electricity prices tend to be higher.
Clean Line says its transmission line would still deliver up to 500 megawatts to Missouri customers, but that wasn’t enough to convince a majority of the PSC. Commissioners said they didn’t think the company demonstrated the project was needed in the state.
Citing public outcry and property rights, the commissioners balked at giving it utility status that would let it use eminent domain to acquire easements.
PSC Commissioner Bill Kenney, who voted against Grain Belt, noted the difference in a discussion of Ameren’s Mark Twain line during a webcast of a meeting Wednesday.
“I was one of three commissioners here who voted against the Clean Line Grain Belt Express because I felt it did not benefit Missouri customers,” he said. “I think this does benefit the ratepayers.”
Commissioner Stephen Stoll acknowledged opposition around Kirksville and Palmyra to Ameren’s 100-mile line. But Stoll, who opposed Grain Belt, said he saw the projects differently.
“I do feel for the property owners,” he said. “I know people don’t necessarily want these, but for the reasons I voted against Clean Line, I think in this case (Ameren) had gone through the requisite issues and came to us with a clear plan and that’s why I think they met the standards and I support it.”
CLEAN LINE TO TRY AGAIN
Clean Line says it still plans to refile an application with the PSC sometime this year. Mark Lawlor, the company’s director of development, said the company will attempt to better define the benefits to Missouri. It is working to finalize commitments from Missouri utilities to buy power on the line, which he thinks may help convince the commission.
“They want the benefits to Missouri to be plain, clear and easy to understand, and we get that, and that’s what we’ll do,” Lawlor said, adding: “I wouldn’t say they weren’t there the first time around.”
Failing that, the company may be able to bypass Missouri. After Arkansas regulators blocked another Clean Line project connecting wind energy from Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle to the Southeast, the Department of Energy said last month it would partner with the company.
That allows the project to bypass state regulators under a 2005 law.
Lawlor said Clean Line hasn’t sought the same authority in Missouri, but a similar DOE arrangement “isn’t impossible” here. He noted that in developing its southern transmission line, it would follow the regulatory process in states that had already approved the project and asserted their jurisdiction. Missouri can likewise assert its authority, he said.
“They have the ability to take jurisdiction and impose any provisions and protections that they see fit,” Lawlor said.
The Ameren project, meanwhile, may win PSC approval but face a challenge in the courts. At issue is whether it and other transmission developers must obtain approval from each county commission. With pressure from landowners against the project high, Ameren hasn’t won the assent of all Northeast Missouri counties its Mark Twain crosses.
PSC Chairman Daniel Hall said he thought state law indicates transmission lines do need county approval, but he felt the PSC could grant its approval on the condition that the utility ultimately win the assent of affected counties. Either way, he expects a judge will ultimately end up interpreting the rules.
“The reality is it doesn’t really matter what the five of us say that statute means,” Hall said. “What really matters is what a court or an appellate court says that statute means. While I’ve got my opinion and maybe the commission will have its opinion, the reality is it’s going to go to a court.”