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For power line opponents, hope hasn’t dimmed

Joe Kalin has fond memories of growing up in the Buchanan County countryside.

His father came from Switzerland and turned 87 acres near Faucett, Missouri, into a successful dairy farm, where Kalin lived and worked with four brothers and a sister. Before passing it to the next generation, Kalin’s father instilled a deep appreciation for the land and its productive capacity.

“My parents both come from the old country,” said Kalin, now 84. “My father, he loved to farm. It was given to us boys as an inheritance. We were always told to take care of it, that it would care of us.”

Now, Kalin has his doubts. After surviving an up-and-down farm economy and switching to row crops, he warily anticipates a new threat on the horizon. It’s not the weather.

It’s a 780-mile, high-voltage transmission line that threatens to cut through the land that brought John Kalin to America in the 1920s. The project, known as the Grain Belt Express, seeks to transfer wind power from western Kansas to population centers east of the Mississippi River.

It’s been talked about so much it’s hard to believe the Grain Belt Express has been neither constructed nor completely eliminated as a viable project. Since 2014, counties have granted and then rescinded support and state regulators denied and then approved an application to build the line across northern Missouri.

The company that started the project is no longer in the picture. Invenergy, a Chicago-based business, purchased the Grain Belt Express in 2019.

Now, landowners like Kalin are watching as Missouri lawmakers make another attempt to kill the project. A bill to deny eminent domain rights failed to pass in 2019, but a similar measure, House Bill 527, passed in the House and awaits a Senate hearing in the final weeks of the session.

“Property rights are a foundational right of who we are as the state of Missouri,” said state Rep. Mike Haffner, the bill’s sponsor.

Critics like Haffner and the Missouri Farm Bureau said Grain Belt is not entitled to eminent domain because it is not providing a public benefit but is instead a “merchant” line that buys power in one place and sells it someplace else at a profit. That’s especially true of the Grain Belt Express, according to Haffner, because it’s a direct-current project that would need a costly converter station to provide power in Missouri.

To him, it’s more of a highway with few off-ramps until it exits Missouri.

“There is nothing associated with this line that is increasing the base amount of energy available to the state of Missouri,” said Haffner, a Republican from Cass County. “It is an energy highway. It’s just transporting energy. The intent was to bring it all the way to the East Coast.”

One new wrinkle in this debate came in February when extreme cold weather caused rolling blackouts in Missouri and a near-collapse of the electrical grid in Texas as supply was not able to meet demand. Supporters of the Grain Belt Express, including manufacturing organizations like Associated Industries of Missouri, said the $2.3 billion project will increase the capacity to transport bulk power, which could help meet future spikes in energy demand.

“The bipartisan Missouri Public Service Commission unanimously approved the Grain Belt Express as a public utility project because of the tremendous public benefit it will bring to the Show-Me State,” said Beth Conley, an Invenergy spokeswoman, in a prepared statement. “Missouri’s largest energy infrastructure project will provide payments to landowners and local communities, support 1,500 construction jobs over three years, deliver millions in annual energy savings for 39 Missouri communities and bolster electric reliability to help avoid future emergency outages.”

For his part, Kalin said he isn’t against green energy but opposes being forced to pay the price while others reap the benefits. He doesn’t want to look out the window and see 150-foot power poles where his father once saw a landscape reminiscent of an alpine meadow.

“I don’t like the government telling people what they can do and can’t do with their land,” he said.