JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Lawmakers frequently discuss ways to conserve the environment, but in Missouri, little action is taken. But one group is hoping Missouri regulators approve a project that allows them to them expand the state’s transmission grid in order to provide a cleaner, and hopefully cheaper energy to Missouri consumers.
The Grain Belt Express Clean Line is a proposed 750-mile, four state, high-capacity direct current overhead transmission line designed specifically to transmit low-cost energy from wind turbines in western states like Kansas to consumers in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.
“We have the opportunity right now to build infrastructure that will benefit our country for decades to come,” said Dave Desmond, Business Manager of IBEW Local #2, St. Louis, Missouri. “With Clean Line’s infrastructure investment comes the opportunity to support good, American, middle-class jobs.”
Turbines in the windiest parts of the country — largely the western areas of Kansas, Colorado, South Dakota, and more — produce huge amounts of energy. But a great deal of power is lost in the process of transmitting that energy along a conventional electric line. This new direct current “DC” line, can carry up to 3,500 megawatts of clean, renewable energy while losing very little power in transmission.
Essentially, wind power on a large scale isn’t viable without the high-powered lines, which Clean Line Energy wants to build around the country.
In March, Clean Line Energy reported receiving requests for more than 20,000 megawatts of transmission service for the Grain Belt Express Clean Line in its open solicitation process, representing more than four and a half times the available capacity of the transmission line. All of those requests came from wind generators who require new transmission infrastructure to deliver wind energy from projects under development in and around western Kansas to serve customers in Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana.
“The interest among wind developers to deliver low-cost wind power to the Missouri market is promising,” said Columbia Mayor Bob McDavid. “We’re very interested in the Grain Belt Express Clean Line project’s progress, because the City of Columbia needs access to energy as cleanly and inexpensively as we can get it. We hope this project moves forward so we can get energy from renewable sources at a substantially lower cost than what we are now paying.”
“Clean Line Energy is developing a series of transmission lines that will deliver thousands of megawatts of renewable power from the windiest areas of the United States to communities and cities that have a strong demand for clean, reliable energy but lack access to clean energy resources,” their website reads.
Clean Line Energy is currently working with the Missouri Public Service Commission to obtain a Certificate of Convenience and Necessity in order to operate as a utility in the state. As will all utilities, a CCN would provide Clean Line with access to eminent domain if necessary to construct the roughly 206-mile Missouri portion of the Midwest Grain Belt Express line.
Clean Line is optimistic that the PSC will ultimately grant their request, and they have until April 11 to respond to a series of follow-ups from the public utility regulator. But supporters are also eyeing a bill offered by Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Pike County, which appears aimed directly at the project.
If approved, Hansen’s bill would effectively prohibit Clean Line Energy from exercising eminent domain on the project, even if the authority to do so has already been approved by the PSC. Clean Line’s supporters say there is a clear case history of prohibiting legislation written for a single, narrow purpose like halting a development.
Hansen’s bill had a hearing last week which stretched so long that it had to be continued. Supporters of Hansen’s bill, many of them property owners where the proposed line would be built, raised a series of largely-debunked health concerns associated with high-powered DC lines including cancer risks, buzzing, and danger to soil or livestock. Clean Line says none of those concerns are backed-up by modern science. They say the real reason for objecting to the line is simpler: people don’t feel like looking at power lines on their property.
At the same time, Clean Line has been meeting with landowners to address their concerns and laying out the compensation that will be paid for the utility easement leading local leaders to sign on.
“Public infrastructure like rails, pipelines and transmission brings tax revenue to our area,” said Peggy McGaugh, County Clerk, Carroll County. “The Grain Belt Express will bring in an estimated $600,000 in property tax revenue to our county in the first year alone. I am for new infrastructure projects that can bring revenue to our county to support our schools, our fire departments and our roads and bridges.”
Supporters of the project hope to pivot the discussion to the potential gains. First, wind power is ultimately cheaper and more efficient, to say nothing of a clean energy resource. Second, and perhaps more important, is that Missouri is already in the business of wind turbines, and a new transmission line would help business boom.
The ABB plant in Jefferson City, for instance, is the single largest transformer distribution facility on Earth. Over the last few years, ABB’s production has seen more and more orders for wind turbine transformers. But the Kansas/Missouri region has reached a “saturation” point with respect to wind power. Without higher-powered transmission lines to deliver the energy effectively to more consumers few new turbines will likely be built.
Clean Line has received the necessary regulatory approvals in Kansas and Indiana and has an application pending in Missouri. In Illinois, Clean Line will apply for regulatory approval this year.
“This Grain Belt Express Clean Line is a great example of the free market working to address the energy sector’s need for interregional transmission,” Kansas Governor Sam Brownback said. “Kansas wind farms produce some of the lowest-cost wind power in the country and Clean Line’s open solicitation makes clear the strong demand to ship that Kansas power to markets in need of cheap, clean energy. I look forward to the project moving forward as it helps reduce our dependency on foreign energy sources.”
There is also large scale support from the business community along the proposed route.
“This project would be a huge boon to our concrete and trucking company in northeastern Missouri,” said Cindy O’Laughlin of O’Laughlin, Inc. “We are excited to have a new business opportunity in North Missouri of this magnitude. The converter station just south of Hannibal that will put energy into Missouri’s electric grid will require 20,000 cubic yards of concrete. This would be more than most small or medium sized concrete companies produce in an entire year.”
Clean Line Energy says that wind power will simply explode as an industry once states construct lines to transmit the energy. And when it comes to increasing Missouri manufacturing, Clean Line Energy has swayed the support of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who have taken a firm position against Hansen’s bill.
“Wind energy is an important part of our energy portfolio and we are excited that Missouri will play a role in providing that energy through the Grain Belt Express Clean Line,” said Daniel Mehan, President and CEO of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “Providing an additional cleaner, cheaper and more abundant energy is a good thing for business and Missouri consumers and we are committed to this opportunity.”
Hansen’s bill’s hearing will continue this week, and without a companion bill in the senate, Clean Line’s supporters are hoping there is little chance his bill will become law. But until the bill dies, Missouri lawmakers may be hearing more and more about wind power.
Collin Reischman was the Managing Editor for The Missouri Times, and a graduate of Webster University with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism.