After years of legal wrangling, the Missouri Public Service Commission on Wednesday approved a controversial transmission line that could bring wind energy from western Kansas to Columbia, but landowners in its path said they will continue to fight the project.
The PSC approved the $2.3 billion, 4,000 megawatt project known as Grain Belt Express in a 5-0 decision. If built, the 780-mile transmission line would carry electricity from the Iron Star wind farm in southwestern Kansas to parts of Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. Regulators in Kansas and Illinois still need to sign off on the project.
More than 200 miles of the transmission line would run through Buchanan, Clinton, Caldwell, Carroll, Chariton, Randolph, Monroe and Ralls counties if Chicago-based Invenergy ever builds the project. In a news release the Missouri Public Utility Alliance hailed the decision and said the project will save 39 municipal utilities $10 million per year.
"The transmission project will deliver low-cost renewable electricity to Missouri homes and businesses," said Duncan Kincheloe, Missouri Public Utility Alliance president, in a news release.
Texas-based Grain Belt Express Clean Line Energy Partners proposed to build the project in 2014. Last November Invenergy announced plans to buy the transmission line.
In June 2016 the Missouri Joint Municipal Electric Utility Commission, known as MJMEUC, agreed to purchase power from Grain Belt. Ryan Williams, Columbia Water & Light assistant director, said the city plans to buy 35 megawatts of power from the agreement. In 2014 the city set a goal of obtaining 15 percent of Columbia Water & Light's power from renewable sources by the end of 2017, 25 percent from renewables by the end of 2022 and 30 percent from renewables by the end of 2028.
Last year Columbia Water & Light got 15.67 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, Williams said. Electricity from the Grain Belt Express and a 10-megawatt solar farm being built near Columbia will help the city hit its goals, Williams said.
"We're excited about this," Williams said of the PSC's approval. "The citizens of Columbia will benefit from having additional renewable energy at a competitive price."
State law requires county permission to put up power lines along public roads. In August 2017, the PSC denied the application. At the time the PSC ruled ruled it did not have the authority to issue a "certificate of convenience and necessity" needed to approve the project because Grain Belt did not get permission from each county the line would go through.
The Missouri Supreme Court ruled in July that the commission does have the authority to issue the certificate, and ordered the commission to determine if the transmission line is necessary or convenient for Missouri utilities. Wednesday, the commission said MJMEUC's agreement to buy power from the line showed that Missouri utilities need power from the Grain Belt. Missouri utilities will save money and pass that savings onto consumers, the commission determined.
PSC staff made the certificate conditional on several compromises from the entity, including that Grain Belt must establish a decommissioning fund before construction starts. Money in the fund would ensure Grain Belt has the resources to dismantle the line and end easements if the line is not get finished or shuts down. The certificate also exempts Gran Belt from state reporting requirements as long as the company submits its required federal report to the state.
Landowners groups decried the decision and said they plan to appeal the commission's action.
Of the 570 Missouri landowners affected, Grain Belt acquired easements from 39, according to the public service commission. Because Grain Belt is not a public utility, it cannot use eminent domain to take land for the project, landowners and farmers argued. The Missouri Public Energy Pool, which provides power to 35 cities including Fayette and Vandalia, agreed to buy 60 megawatts from Grain Belt.
Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst called the agreements with Grain Belt "bribes" to give utilities discounted power in exchange for the right to use eminent domain. Taxpayers see benefits from eminent domain when investor-owned utilities use the tool because the PSC gives rate-payers that money back in the form of discounted rates, Hurst said.
Private companies like Grain Belt and Invenergy can use the eminent domain and charge market rates for power, which harms consumers, Hurst argued.
"It's an implicit bargain between companies and Missourians the demand of energy will take people's property," Hurst said. "It's just terribly unfair."
Jennifer Gatrel, a spokeswoman for the group Block Grain Belt Express, said the group lost one battle in a war that spans several years.
“Eventually we will win, because we can’t quit," Gatrel said.
Before proceeding with the project, Invenergy needs the PSC to approve its purchase of Grain Belt. The commission will hold formal hearings April 23-24 in Jefferson City.
Regulators in Kansas and Illinois also still need to approve the project. The Kansas Corporation Commission must approve the change of ownership and extend the certificate it issued in December 2011 for an early version of the project. Grain Belt also has to re-apply for approval from the Illinois Commerce Commission.
The company won approval from the commission in 2015 under an expedited review system meant for public utilities. Because Grain Belt did not show evidence that it owns, controls or manages infrastructure in Illinois, it was not a public utility, and must go back before the Illinois Commerce Commission, the Illinois Court of Appeals ruled last year.
Invenergy spokeswoman Beth Conley praised the PSC's action and said Invenergy put the project on solid financial ground.
"The order confirms that the Grain Belt Express project is in the public interest and is good for Missouri," Conley said. "Invenergy looks forward to the next step in the regulatory process before the PSC and to bringing low-cost power, quality jobs and new tax revenue to Missouri."