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clean energy wind AP/Peter Dejong

This photo taken July 27, 2006, shows wind turbines clustered offshore in Dronten, the Netherlands.

March 20, 2017

Wind energy firm trying again for OK of cross-country line

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A renewable energy company again faced opposition from landowners Monday as it tried for the second time to win one of the final pieces of regulatory approval needed to carry wind power east from the nation's heartland over one of the country's longest transmission lines.

Missouri utility regulators began hearing testimony on a request from Clean Line Energy to build a high-voltage transmission line from western Kansas across Missouri and Illinois to an Indiana power grid that connects with eastern states. Along the way, the line also could supply power to the equivalent of 200,000 Missouri homes.

The Houston-based company already has won approval from other states for its 780-mile-long power line. But the Missouri Public Service Commission rejected its request in July 2015 while questioning its local benefit and the burden on landowners in its path.

So Clean Line Energy retooled its proposal and is trying again — this time, attempting to persuade regulators of its need by lining up dozens of Missouri municipal utilities as customers and expanding landowner protections.

"What we propose today is a highway of steel to transmit low-cost renewable energy," said Karl Zobrist, an attorney for Clean Line who is a former chairman of the Missouri Public Service Commission and past executive for the Indiana-based regional power transmission entity Midcontinent Independent System Operator Inc.

The power line, dubbed the Grain Belt Express, has come to highlight one of the toughest challenges for those seeking to nudge the U.S. toward a greater reliance on renewable energy. Although converting wind and sun into electricity is increasingly affordable, it can be difficult to gain the regulatory and legal approval necessary to carry the power from remote areas where it's produced to the places where it's needed most.

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.

Staff for the Missouri Public Service Commission — who make recommendations to the five-member regulatory panel — said Monday that they still cannot recommend approval for Clean Line's project, though they also did not recommend its rejection. Staff questioned the need and public benefit and suggested that Missouri law requires Clean Line to first get the consent of each county it will cross before gaining state approval.

In another recent case, however, the Missouri regulatory commission granted permission for a power transmission line contingent on later getting approval from various counties.

Several groups of landowners and farmers continue to oppose the power line, noting it would cut across farm fields, tarnish backyard views and likely lower property values.

"As they are disrupting the landscape, they are going to be totally disrupting people's lives as well," said Paul Agathen, an attorney for the Missouri Landowners Alliance.

He accused Clean Line of seeking to "buy its way into Missouri by offering a discriminatory, drastically discounted, below-cost rate to a single customer" so that it could use Missouri as a "stepping stone" to more lucrative markets to the east.

Clean Line has reached agreements to transmit renewable energy with several individual cities as well as with the Missouri Joint Municipal Electric Utility Commission, a public power agency that serves dozens of cities and towns. The low-cost wind power presented a "promising opportunity" for Missouri cities that is expected to save their customers at least $200 million over the next couple of decades, said Doug Healy, an attorney for the group.

The Missouri regulatory hearing is scheduled to last a full week, and a decision may not come for several additional weeks or months.

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