JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Missouri regulators reversed course Wednesday and gave the go-ahead to one of the nation's largest renewable energy projects — a high-voltage power line delivering wind energy from the Midwest to a power grid for eastern states.
The proposed Grain Belt Express transmission line would stretch 780 miles (1,255 kilometers) from Kansas across Missouri and Illinois before hooking into an electric grid in Indiana that serves the eastern U.S. The $2.3 billion project had twice been rejected by the Missouri Public Service Commission, but it reconsidered following a ruling last year by the state Supreme Court.
Missouri's approval is a big step but not the final one before construction can begin.
In November, Chicago-based Invenergy announced it was buying the project from Houston-based Clean Line Energy Partners. That deal should bolster the financing, but Invenergy said the sale still needs regulatory approval in Missouri and Kansas. The transmission line also needs to regain regulatory approval in Illinois, where a state appeals court last year overturned the state's previous approval.
The Grain Belt Express project has highlighted one of the biggest challenges facing renewable energy developers in the U.S. Converting wind into electricity is increasingly affordable, but 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 had been working on the proposed direct-current power line since 2010 and had said last year that it still hoped to bring the project online by 2023 or 2024.
Invenergy spokeswoman Beth Conley said that timeline has not been changed by the proposed sale of the project. The power line would be the largest transmission project undertaken by Invenergy.
"The Grain Belt Express is important because it is a transformative infrastructure project that will provide access to more low-cost renewable power to American consumers and communities," Invenergy spokeswoman Beth Conley said.
Paul Agathan, an attorney for the Missouri Landowners Alliance, which has opposed the project, said he is considering whether to appeal the regulatory ruling to a state court. The project also could face continued opposition from some counties, which grant approval for powerlines to cross roads, and from individual property owners.
Some landowners "just really do not believe that a private company like Grain Belt should have the right to take their property by eminent domain in order to put a transmission line through Missouri," Agathan said. "They sincerely believe they're being wronged here."
When Missouri regulators originally rejected the project in July 2015, they determined it would have little benefit for Missouri consumers and cited the burden it would impose on landowners in its path. Since then, the project was restructured to include a deal to sell some of the power to a coalition of Missouri municipal utilities. That helped persuade regulators that the project does have benefit to the state.
All five regulatory commissioners voted for the project Wednesday. Their written order said that "the broad economic, environmental, and other benefits of the project ... outweigh the interests of the individual landowners."
"I'm excited to see it go," said commissioner Bill Kenney, who had voted against the original proposal. "We're moving toward more renewables, and I think this project is an excellent start for us in Missouri."
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