Missouri regulators reject massive Midwest wind power line

By DAVID A. LIEB Markets Associated Press

Missouri utility regulators on Wednesday rejected a proposed high-voltage power line to carry wind power across the Midwest to eastern states, delivering a significant setback to developers of one of the nation's longest transmission lines.

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The decision marked the second time in a little over two years that the Missouri Public Service Commission has denied a request from Clean Line Energy Partners to build its power line through the state after a lengthy review process.

The 780-mile-long line would run from wind farms in western Kansas through Missouri and Illinois to Indiana, where it would connect with a power grid for eastern states. All the other states along its route already have granted approval to the $2.3 billion project.

Most members of Missouri's regulatory panel said they, too, wanted to approve the high-profile project but felt compelled to vote against it because of a recent state appeals court ruling. The judges in that case said utilities must first get the consent of counties to string a power line across roads before state approval can be granted. Clean Line lacks approval from several Missouri counties where its line is opposed by local residents.

It's not clear whether Missouri's decision will kill the project.

The Houston-based wind energy company could appeal the denial in court. It could try to win support from counties and apply again to Missouri regulators. Or it could attempt to circumvent Missouri by seeking federal approval to build the line through the state, as it did for an Oklahoma-to-Tennessee power line after Arkansas regulators ruled against it in 2011.

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Clean Line executives said Wednesday that they were weighing their options for the Grain Belt Express power line, though they acknowledged that the "legal and regulatory conundrum" could add many months or years to the project if they decide to keep trying.

"We absolutely want to do the project," said Mark Lawlor, development director for Grain Belt Express. But he added: "Unfortunately, the message that we're getting from Missouri is that investments of these kind might be better spent in other places."

The rejected power line highlights one of the largest challenges for renewable energy developers in the U.S. Although converting wind and sun into electricity is increasingly affordable, it can be hard to get the regulatory and legal approval needed to transmit the power from remote areas where it's produced to the places where it's most needed.

Other large-scale renewable energy projects in the Midwest, South and West also have faced denials or delays in transmission line approvals from federal and state regulators and courts.

Opponents of the Grain Belt Express power line rejoiced Wednesday, even though the fight could continue.

"They're done at this point. We won. They can't build the line," said Paul Agathen, an attorney for the Missouri Landowners Alliance. "So it's up to them as to what steps, if any, they take."

Missouri regulators initially rejected the project in July 2015, while determining it had little benefit for Missouri consumers and citing the burden on landowners in its path. Since then, Clean Line retooled its proposal and struck deals to provide renewable energy to dozens of Missouri municipal utilities that serve hundreds of thousands of customers. The company also expanded its landowner protections.

Four of the five members of the Missouri Public Service Commission said Wednesday that they now believe the project is needed, economically feasible and beneficial to the public — and would have approved it were it not for the March appeals court ruling making local permission a prerequisite.

"It was in the public interest to approve the line," said Missouri Public Service Commission Chairman Daniel Hall. "Unfortunately, because of the structure of this commission and because of the legal system in this state, we were unable to act."

Lawlor said the four commissioners' belief that the project was worthwhile but not approvable under state law "makes for an interesting argument" if Clean Line decides to instead seek federal permission to proceed.

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