A long-stalled proposal for a multi-state electric transmission line was thrown a lifeline Tuesday, when the Missouri Supreme Court unanimously ruled that state regulators erred in rejecting the project based on a controversial legal precedent.
The proposed 780-mile Grain Belt Express project from Houston-based developer Clean Line Energy would span four states and distribute Kansas wind power as far as Indiana and beyond.
Missouri is the only state along the project's path that has not previously granted it approval. Kansas, Illinois and Indiana — the other states the line would cross — previously OK'd the project years ago.
Tuesday's decision capped an appeal Clean Line filed after the Missouri Public Service Commission denied the project last August.
The PSC based its rejection on a controversial appeals court ruling that said Ameren's Mark Twain Transmission Project in northeast Missouri required assent from individual counties before it could be approved by state utility regulators. Even though they accepted that legal precedent, some commissioners voiced disagreement and warned that the lower court's rationale would jeopardize future infrastructure development across Missouri.
The state Supreme Court said the precedent should not have been followed.
"The Commission’s reliance on (the decision in the Ameren case) was error," Tuesday's Supreme Court decision stated.
The decision went on to say the suggestion that "consent from every would-be affected county is required" prior to PSC approval for similar lines of infrastructure "should not be followed."
The court ruling sends the matter back to the PSC to determine whether the project "is necessary or convenient" for the public. When commission members reluctantly voted to reject the project last year, they acknowledged that the proposal was squarely in the public interest and would result in millions of dollars of savings for electric customers, thanks to the low cost of wind power.
Tuesday's decision was cheered by some renewable energy advocates and by Clean Line officials.
"We think it's a good decision for the state, not just for our project," Clean Line's president, Michael Skelly, told the Post-Dispatch. "The reason you have a Public Service Commission is to have an eye out for what's good for the state. What the Supreme Court did here is it reasserted the commission's jurisdiction over transmission lines."
But the project still faces some resistance, with opposing groups questioning Tuesday's legal decision.
"Missouri Farm Bureau members believe this decision makes it dangerously easy for property owners’ land to be taken by eminent domain for merchant transmission lines," said Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, in a statement. "We strongly urge the commissioners to deny this request."
Even if the PSC now signs off on the project, it faces an additional hurdle beyond Missouri. Earlier this year, Illinois rescinded its approval on a technicality, because Clean Line does not have a physical presence within its borders and therefore cannot legally qualify as a utility in the state.
"We're going to have to go back through the process in Illinois, but we have a good understanding of what we need to do," said Skelly. "You go through a bunch of trial and error."
Even though it could take a couple years to regain approval in Illinois — a delay that would coincide with the expiration of federal tax credits for wind energy — Skelly said technology-enabled declines in wind costs would still make the project feasible.
"It's pretty close to what it costs today," Skelly said, describing cost projections. "We'll be roughly in the same position because of technology improvements.