The future of two major power-transmission lines – including the central Illinois section of the $2 billion Grain Belt Express project – could rest with the Illinois Supreme Court.
Texas-based Clean Line Energy Partners has asked the state high court to consider reversal of a lower-court decision in August blocking the 121-mile Rock Island Clean Line project near the Quad Cities, a case company executives say also could affect Grain Belt Express. In a challenge brought by landowners, the 3rd District Appellate Court ruled regulators at the Illinois Commerce Commission improperly granted the Rock Island project public utility status, even though Clean Line has no transmission capacity, utility property or customers in Illinois.
Landowners have filed a similar challenge to ICC approval of the Grain Belt Express in the 5th District Appellate Court in Springfield. Both high-voltage power lines would carry wind-generated power, primarily from the upper Midwest.
Representatives from both sides said court rulings could determine whether the projects continue, redefine “public utility” in Illinois and set new standards for non-traditional, clean-energy projects.
“It’s creating an interstate commerce barrier,” Clean Line Energy vice president Hans Detweiler said. “There’s a Catch 22. We cannot become a public utility until we own property, but we’re not allowed to own property until we’re a public utility.”
The state Supreme Court is expected to decide sometime this fall whether to consider the Rock Island appeal. Detweiler said company attorneys would ask that the August decision be reversed and sent back to the 3rd District justices.
“We’re talking about enormous consequences for energy supplies in the state if these projects can’t proceed,” Detweiler said. “Even beyond our two projects, you have a precedent that very clearly would stop anybody else from becoming a public utility.”
While Clean Line has promised jobs, cheaper renewable energy and increased local tax revenue, opponents contend both power lines are unneeded, financially risky and likely to result in higher utility costs for Illinois consumers.
“We think the appellate court got it right,” said William Shay, a Peoria attorney representing the Illinois Landowners Alliance. The group and the Illinois Farm Bureau are among leading opponents.
Granting Rock Island and Grain Belt public utility status, according to the opposition, would open the door to purely speculative energy development projects at the expense of the state’s consumers.
While the cases are separate, Shay said opponents were encouraged by the Rock Island ruling in the fight to halt Grain Belt.
“It will be the subject of additional briefs. We believe the Rock Island decision has hurt Grain Belt in its appeal,” Shay said.
Grain Belt Express still needs approval from Missouri regulators for a transmission line that would carry power from Kansas wind farms across Missouri and central Illinois to Indiana. Missouri regulators previously rejected the project.
Clean Line Energy director of development Mark Lawlor said the original goal of transmitting power in 2018 has been shifted to 2021, pending resolution of the regulatory and legal cases.
“A lot of this depends on the outcome of these decisions,” Lawlor said. “The next phase of the project is substantial dollars on environmental surveys, permitting, full-on land acquisition. You typically don’t deploy that kind of capital until you have your state approvals.”
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