Large-scale Transmission Projects Face Uncertain Future in Missouri
Image courtesy of The Kansas City Star
Last year I highlighted some of the key differences between the Missouri Public Service Commission’s (PSC) decision to approve Ameren’s proposed Mark Twain Project (MTP) transmission line, while denying Clean Line’s proposed Grain Belt Express (GBE) transmission project. Following the 2016 approval of the MTP, Neighbors United Against the Mark Twain Transmission Line, a group of landowners and community members opposing construction of the project, filed suit against Ameren and the PSC. The Missouri Court of Appeals of the Western District ultimately ruled in favor of Neighbors United, voiding the project’s state regulatory approval. Ameren filed an appeal and the decision rested on whether the Supreme Court of Missouri would hear the case or not. Fast forward to March of 2017 and Clean Line was back before the PSC, seeking approval of the Grain Belt Express transmission project that was denied a CCN in 2015.
This time around Clean Line garnered the support of then-governor Jay Nixon, several municipalities and corporations, Missouri Industrial Energy Consumers, and others. Clean Line also obtained purchase agreements from the Missouri Public Energy Pool 1, Kirkwood, MO, and Hannibal, MO. Despite the cultivated customers, op-eds 2 3, and the show of support from several high-profile corporations, PSC staff found that Clean Line had once again failed to show evidence that the project met the criteria of Economic Feasibility, Public Interest, or Need. While the staff brief pointed to another denial of the project, turnover in PSC commissioners 4, public and political support for the project, and purchase agreements potentially changed the decision landscape.
The commissioners punted on a decision until the Missouri Supreme Court made a ruling on Ameren’s appeal of the Neighbors United case, which found that the PSC could not approve a project until the company had obtained approval from each county in the path of the project. In the case of the MTP, county commissioners in the proposed path of the project had denied land use approval for the transmission line. The proposed route for Clean Line’s GBE traverses through eight counties, all of which have denied approval after initially approving the project several years earlier. The Missouri Supreme Court recently decided not to hear the Neighbors United Vs. Ameren/PSC appeal, placing the decision on GBE squarely in the lap of the PSC.
While the commissioners have yet to make a final decision, they have scheduled a hearing for August 3rd to allow Clean line and its supporters, as well as the landowners and other opponents of the project to have a final say before a decision is made. PSC staff didn’t wait to make their opinion known, filing a supplemental brief on July 6th. The brief outlines staff opinion that a CCN should not be approved for the project on the grounds that the MTP court case requires transmission projects to gain county approval before PSC can authorize state approval.
Image courtesy of St. Louis Public Radio
Where we go from here
While a final decision hasn’t been made, it’s difficult to see how the GBE project gains approval from the PSC. The Missouri Supreme Court’s recent decision not to hear the appeal effectively hands over regulatory authority from the PSC to county commissioners for large-scale transmission projects. Even before the court case, the staff opinion, which carries a great deal of weight, remained tilted against approval. As outlined in the previous post, the current state regulatory structure relies heavily on the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) regional planning authority, and projects like the Grain Belt Express that operate outside of that process, have a greater burden of proof in terms of establishing Economic Feasibility, Public Interest, and Need.
Should Clean Line be denied a CCN again, it’s unclear how the company will move forward with the GBE project. Approval has been obtained from the other states 5 in the path of the proposed transmission line and Clean Line could attempt to bypass state authority as they did in Arkansas with the Plains & Eastern line, where that state’s PSC voted to deny approval of the project. In the case of the Plains & Eastern Line, Clean Line obtained federal approval from the Department of Energy (DOE) for the line passing through Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Yet, the current DOE administration under Energy Secretary Rick Perry could pull the plug 6, sending the project back to square one. Regarding Ameren’s MTP, the company is currently proposing a new route that will take advantage of existing right of way, with the aim of avoiding landowner opposition to the transmission line and gaining the required county commissioner approvals.
With MTP currently shelved until a new route can be presented to county commissioners and GBE potentially facing a second denial before the PSC, the state of Missouri presents a significant regulatory hurdle to multi-state transmission projects. That said, court decisions and regulatory processes out of Missouri are not the only obstacles in the way of interstate renewable energy projects. Other states, such as Arkansas and Iowa have halted Clean Line’s plans, and the battle between local control and state and federal authority over transmission projects is still playing out. Rick Perry’s DOE is also nearing the release of a study focused on the impacts of renewable energy sources on the reliability of the electric grid. Should that study frame renewable energy sources as a threat to the grid 7, it may make obtaining approval for large-scale transmission projects all the more difficult 8.
Without large-scale transmission projects providing a means of getting wind energy from the point of generation to consumers across the country, growth in this sector will be limited. While the current federal administration may not prioritize renewable energy investments, states like Missouri, which rely heavily on coal for electricity generation, should focus on long-term planning to make informed energy policy decisions. With the continued penetration of cheap natural gas and renewable energy sources in the energy market, coal has a dwindling shelf life and states will need to diversify energy sources to maintain reliability and prepare for potential future state and federal emissions regulations. With the creation of Missouri’s Comprehensive State Energy Plan, that process has already begun, but it will take the convergence of public support, political will, and feasible policies to allow the state of Missouri to take advantage of the energy transition now underway 9.
- The Missouri Public Energy Pool supplies electricity to 35 municipalities in Missouri. ↩
- “Missouri should approve Grain Belt Express project to lower energy rates” ↩
- “Missouri, my friend, is blowing against the wind” ↩
- GBE was denied approval in 2015 by a vote of 3-2. The previous chairman, Robert Kenney, who supported approval of GBE is no longer on the commission, with the opening filled by Maida Coleman. Even if Coleman votes to support GBE approval, one of the commissioners who previously voted to deny GBE a CCN would have to flip their vote for the project to gain approval. ↩
- The proposed route for the Grain Belt Express runs from wind farms in Kansas, through Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. ↩
- A delegation of Arkansas lawmakers recently appealed to the Energy Secretary to reverse the administration’s previous decision regarding the transmission line. ↩
- A draft of the DOE Grid Reliability Study was recently obtained by Bloomberg News and finds that renewable energy sources do not pose a threat to reliability. While the draft version may relieve the anxiety of renewable energy proponents, the published version of the study could look much different than the leaked draft. ↩
- Multi-state transmission projects already face an uphill climb compared to their natural gas pipeline counterparts, which undergo federal approval and are rarely denied. ↩
- See John Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Model (also referred to as the “Garbage Can” Model) of policy formation as a blueprint for future climate policy solutions. ↩