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After years of rejection, Missouri regulators give nod to Grain Belt Express transmission line

After faltering before Missouri regulators for years, the state Public Service Commission finally gave a nod Wednesday to the Grain Belt Express transmission line – a project aiming to bring Kansas wind energy east to Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, and then into the grid beyond.

The unanimous decision from PSC commissioners grants the project “a certificate of convenience and necessity” – a designation recognizing it as being in the public interest, and lending developers the right to use eminent domain as needed to construct the line.

The move from the PSC capped a series of developments that built momentum for the long-stalled project. Last year, for instance, an appeals court judge said the commission “erred” in its controversial legal interpretation that it was unable to approve the line without first attaining assent from individual counties the project would pass through. That sentiment was echoed in a July ruling from the Missouri Supreme Court, which redirected the matter to the PSC.

Despite the PSC’s earlier interpretation that it could not authorize the project, commissioners had firmly expressed at the time that it would enable millions of dollars in energy cost savings and benefit the public.

In November, an agreement was announced to sell rights to the transmission project from the prospective developer, Clean Line Energy, to the Chicago-based company, Invenergy. The pending sale, itself, was seen as a promising sign for the project by some outsiders who felt Invenergy would not be interested if they thought it were unlikely to come to fruition.

“The Order confirms that the Grain Belt Express project is in the public interest and is good for Missouri,” Invenergy said in a statement released after Wednesday’s decision from the PSC.

The company is now focused on the separate regulatory matter of having its acquisition of the project approved in Missouri and Kansas, said Beth Conley, an Invenergy spokesperson.

Though Missouri had long been the only holdout among the four states on the project’s path, another hurdle arose last year in Illinois, which rescinded its approval on the technicality that Clean Line did not have a physical presence in the state and therefore could not qualify as a utility. Conley said there was still “no existing regulatory approval in Illinois” and “nothing pending,” as well.

Other entities cheered Wednesday’s PSC decision, including groups representing municipal electric utilities in Missouri.

“The transmission project, along with a power purchase wind energy agreement, will deliver low-cost renewable electricity to Missouri homes and businesses, saving 39 nonprofit municipal utilities in Missouri more than $10 million annually,” Duncan Kincheloe, president and general manager of the Missouri Public Utility Alliance, said in a statement. The organization said that the “unanimous vote of five independent commissioners appointed by multiple governors affirm that the project is in the public interest of all Missourians.”

The Missouri Farm Bureau, however, criticized the approval of the project.

“Allowing the project to proceed places hundreds of Missouri landowners at risk of having their land taken for a project that may never be completed,” said a statement from Blake Hurst, the president of the Missouri Farm Bureau.

The order from the PSC, though, includes landowner protections in that event. It states that “if Grain Belt fails to obtain the necessary financial commitments for the Project within 5 years of obtaining an easement through eminent domain proceedings, Grain Belt must dissolve the easement and return possession of it to the landowner.”