Missouri court gives jolt of life to long Midwest power line

July 17, 2018 - 2:02 pm

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A proposal for a high-voltage power line carrying wind energy across the Midwest received a jolt of new life Tuesday as the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that state regulators had wrongly rejected it.

The ruling is a major victory in the quest by Clean Line Energy Partners to build one of the nation's longest electric transmission lines. The $2.3 billion project would carry power harnessed from the wind-whipped plains of western Kansas on a 780-mile (1,255 kilometer) trek across Missouri and Illinois before hooking into an electric grid in Indiana that serves the eastern U.S.

"The project has been on standby while we awaited the Missouri Supreme Court decision," Clean Line President Michael Skelly said. "Now with this decision, we can get back after it."

Missouri had been the lone state blocking the project. But during Missouri's protracted regulatory and legal battle, an Illinois appeals court in March also overturned that state's approval.

Skelly said the Houston-based renewable energy firm still has a clear path toward winning Illinois approval by first acquiring ownership of some utility property and then reapplying.

Attorney Paul Agathan, who represents more than 1,000 members of the Missouri Landowners Alliance, said his clients would continue fighting the power line before state regulators and county commissioners, who still would eventually have to sign off on permits for the power line to cross roads.

"It's not over, but it's obviously a setback for us," he said.

The power line, known as the Grain Belt Express, has come to exemplify one of the biggest challenges facing renewable energy developers in the U.S. Although converting wind into electricity is increasingly affordable, it can sometimes be difficult to get the various governmental approvals necessary to string the power lines from the remote areas where the energy is produced to the more populated places where it's consumed.

Clean Line has been working on its proposed direct-current power line since 2010 but still hasn't been able to start construction. Skelly said he now hopes the project can be online by 2023 or 2024.

The Missouri Public Service Commission originally rejected the project in July 2015 while determining it had little benefit for Missouri consumers and citing the burden it would impose on landowners in its path.

Clean Line reapplied after striking a deal to sell some of the power to a coalition of Missouri municipal utilities.

In August 2017, a majority of regulatory commissioners said they believed the project was needed, beneficial to the public and economically feasible. But they again rejected it , this time citing a court ruling in an unrelated case that said power companies first needed approval from all the counties where they planned to string lines across roads.

Clean Line's appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court was argued by former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who had backed the project before leaving office in January 2017. During a court hearing April , Nixon argued that state regulators had adopted an "erroneous interpretation" of Missouri law that ran contrary to more than 70 years or precedent.

The high court ruled unanimously that Clean Line does not need to get consent from counties before the state Public Service Commission can grant its approval. The court directed the regulatory panel to re-evaluate Clean Line's application.

The decision was cheered by renewable energy advocates but denounced by Missouri Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst, who said in a statement that it "makes it dangerously easy for property owners' land to be taken by eminent domain for merchant transmission lines."

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