A multistate transmission line for wind energy from Kansas was again tripped up Wednesday by regulators in Missouri, which for years has been the only one of four states to withhold approval.
Members of the state Public Service Commission acknowledged that the Grain Belt Express project planned by Houston developer Clean Line Energy would be “in the public interest” and save electric customers in certain Missouri cities millions of dollars annually. However, the PSC determined that a recent court decision requires counties to approve the project first.
“We need to go back to a decision by the Western District (Court of Appeals),” PSC chairman Daniel Hall said. “This commission cannot certify a transmission line without assents from those counties the line traverses.”
That court ruling sidelined Ameren’s Mark Twain Project, a 95-mile transmission line planned for northeastern Missouri.
Borrowing the same legal reasoning, the PSC’s five commissioners all voted Wednesday to deny Grain Belt Express’ application for a certificate of right of convenience or necessity, which would enable the project to use eminent domain. Four of the commissioners, however, said they would sign a concurrence to signal that the certificate would have been granted if not for the Mark Twain decision, which the state Supreme Court declined to review despite a request from the commission.
“There was demand for this power in Missouri,” said Hall, noting that several cities had reached agreements to receive the project’s wind-generated electricity. “Those ratepayers in those cities were going to see significant savings in their electric bills if this transmission line was allowed to proceed.”
Commissioner Scott Rupp also said he had to “reluctantly” turn down the project’s application. “The courts got this one wrong, and it’s going to have big policy implications,” Rupp said.
The 780-mile transmission line would bring power from Kansas wind farms to Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and beyond. The project’s developers and other supporters harshly criticized Wednesday’s PSC ruling.
“It’s going to apply to future infrastructure projects — not just ours, but anyone who wants to come to Missouri and build transmission lines or pipelines, they’re gonna pay attention to this,” said Mark Lawlor, vice president at Clean Line. “It sends a bad signal to the marketplace.”
He argued that Grain Belt Express and projects of statewide significance should be decided by the PSC.
“It’s certainly not what the legislature intended,” Lawlor said. “It’s certainly not how the commission has worked in its 113-year history, but that’s somehow where we found ourselves today.”
Lawlor said Clean Line would need time to determine its next course of action.
An impact study from Missouri’s Department of Economic Development showed that the project would support 1,500 jobs during construction and dozens of permanent jobs after completion. Lawlor said 68 cities, including Kirkwood, had agreements to buy power from the project and would have saved an estimated $10 million annually.
“Obviously we’re disappointed in the decision,” said James Owen, executive director of Renew Missouri, an organization that advocates for renewable energy. “This is a project that was gonna create jobs, lower utility bills (and) help a lot of industry leaders with their commitments to renewable energy.”
Owen said he was disappointed by Gov. Eric Greitens’ silence on Grain Belt Express. “I didn’t hear a single word from the governor’s office about whether they supported this or not,” Owen said.
The PSC’s action, meanwhile, was cheered by activists and local officials who opposed the project.
“This is a huge victory for local control and property rights,” Russ Piscotta, the president of Block Grain Belt Express-Missouri, said in a statement.
The transmission project would cross eight Missouri counties. One of them is Ralls County, where Wiley Hibbard is presiding commissioner.
“Please know Ralls County is not against green energy,” said Hibbard, adding that a local electric cooperative had ample wind energy available. “Anyone interested in taking advantage of this clean energy opportunity without taking our land by force is welcome in Ralls County.”