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Grain Belt Express promises stronger electric grid — if Missouri lawmakers don't kill it

Grain Belt Express promises stronger electric grid — if Missouri lawmakers don't kill it

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Wind turbines at the Spearville Wind Farm, on September 23, 2014 in Spearville, Kansas. In the Grain Belt Express project, high-voltage transmission lines would carry Kansas wind power across Missouri to power grids in the East. (Mark Reinstein/Zuma Press/TNS)

Developers of the Grain Belt Express say the massive transmission line remains on track to open up by 2025, connecting wind power in western Kansas with voracious demand in the East.

The 800-mile project promises to add more reliability to the electric grid — all the more enticing since rolling blackouts in February left millions of Americans without power. While the $2 billion overhead transmission line aims at exporting wind energy from Kansas, it will also be capable of moving electricity both directions, which could have helped mitigate the electricity crisis that hit the United States earlier this year.

"Lines like Grain Belt Express could have been the savior," said Jay Caspary, a transmission expert who worked at the Southwest Power Pool for nearly 20 years. "The value of transmission becomes really apparent when you don't have it. Because you're stuck with local resources."

But for all its purported benefits, the project remains hotly contested in Missouri, where lawmakers are considering a bill that could make it nearly impossible to build. The House of Representatives in February overwhelmingly approved HB 527, which would ban the use of eminent domain for above-ground utility projects like the Grain Belt Express.

In Missouri, the Grain Belt Express would span 200 miles across eight counties. But many of the more than 500 landowners along the route have been opposing the project for years, saying its a land grab from a private company that will offer little public value.

The measure is expected to be taken up by a state Senate committee in the coming weeks.

In an opinion column last week, Sen. Bill White, a Joplin Republican, blasted the legislation for retroactively taking aim at the already-approved Grain Belt Express, which he said would invite litigation.

"Over the next several weeks senators from both parties are going to have to decide whether they want to help generate millions in economic activity and lower energy costs," wrote White, the assistant majority floor leader. "As a conservative, pro-job growth policymaker, the only prudent path forward is to defeat House Bill 527 and let this privately funded project continue to invest millions in our rural areas, strengthen our local energy supply, and help assure our energy independence."

The legislation is the latest legislative effort to block the controversial line, which opponents say is a violation of individual property rights. Some farmers also say they've received easement purchase offers well below their land's value that don't consider the impacts of the transmission line on their homes and businesses.

Alongside the Grain Belt bill, lawmakers have advanced another measure that environmentalists call an attack on clean energy. The proposal would prohibit local governments from blocking any energy sources, a reaction to ordinances passed in cities such as Berkeley, California, that ban natural gas hookups in new construction.

Many landowners along the Grain Belt Express have also criticized the project for essentially exporting energy through Missouri with little benefit to the state.

"What this bill does is say if you're going to use and take Missouri farm owners' land that we're actually going to have access to the power," said Mike Haffner, the Pleasant Hill Republican who sponsored the bill targeting the transmission line.

Haffner has said only 6% of the transmitted power from the project would be used in Missouri. But the company points out that 39 municipalities in Missouri already have agreements to obtain power from the line, potentially saving ratepayers millions. And the Missouri Public Service Commission's approval required the line to deliver at least 500 megawatts of its 4,000-megawatt capacity to Missouri.

Rep. Mark Ellebracht, a Democrat from Liberty, called the project an instance where "the greater good outweighs the individual rights."

Last year, the Missouri Supreme Court ended a legal challenge from landowners seeking to overturn the public service commission's 2019 approval of the project.

The Missouri House approved Haffner's bill a month after farmers testified for hours before the House Judiciary Committee about how their land would be affected. Most said they had already dealt with pipelines running through their land. And opponents said they worried allowing the Grain Belt Express project would open the doors to numerous other future projects.

About a third of Kansas and Missouri landowners on the route have signed easement agreements with the company, which is prepared to pay $35 million to the landowners, said Nicole Luckey, Invenergy's vice president of regulatory affairs. The offer includes payments for land easements and for structures built for the line on landowners' property. Luckey put the average payment to landowners at $150,000.

Robyn Henke said she and her husband, a sixth generation farmer, bought part of their land in Salisbury just weeks before learning the transmission line would be constructed through it. They've been fighting the project for eight years.

"It's getting to where we're worried about not wanting [their sons] to farm, so they don't have to go through this," Henke said tearfully. "We want their future to be better than this. We don't want them to have to fight for the land that we've had."

But not everyone along the route opposes the project.

Donna Inglis, who owns a farm with her husband in Randolph County, said she's negotiated with Invenergy just as she did with three companies that built pipelines through their land.

"If no one were in favor of progress ... we would still be living by a kerosene lamp and going to the outhouse," she said. "You have to be in favor of progress."

The high-voltage Grain Belt Express would stretch from Dodge City to Indiana. The route would connect three power markets: the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, called MISO; the PJM Interconnection; and the Southwest Power Pool, which serves more than a dozen states in the central and western United States, including the Kansas City area.

Crucially, the Grain Belt Express would connect the Southwest Power Pool with the PJM Interconnection for the first time. That connection could have proven especially helpful in February, when electric demand in Midwestern states outstripped available supply.

"The power could have been directed the other way from Indiana west into Missouri and into Kansas," Caspary told The Star.

As inconvenient and painful as this winter's power outages were, he said they underscore the need for upgrading the wider electric grid.

"We need to have the conversation about transmission," Caspary said. "We need big transmission, not just for moving renewables to markets but also for helping with resiliency in events like this. And I think they're going to happen more often."

The company warns that the Missouri legislation, if passed, would set a dangerous precedent that could threaten future infrastructure projects in the state.

"We take it very seriously," said Kris Zadlo, a senior vice president at Invenergy, "and we hope that we'll defeat it again like in past years."

Aside from Missouri's proposed legislation, Zadlo said the project only needs final regulatory approval in Illinois before construction begins. It's expected to be online by 2025, he said.

So far, the company has not had to use eminent domain to acquire property along the route, he said. Zadlo noted that landowners still have full access to their property once easements are acquired. The company is paying 110% of the assessed land value and once the line is built, landowners can still use their property for hunting, farming or other activities.

In addition to providing a source of affordable, renewable energy to communities along the route, Invenergy says it expects to provide broadband capability to internet service providers — connecting as many as 1 million Missourians with high-speed internet.

Zadlo understands the opposition to the project. But he said the benefits for people here and across the United States are immense. Just like railroad cars transport coal from mines to refineries, the Grain Belt will move a much-needed resource to customers, while also strengthening the electrical grid.

"Reliability benefits all people, right? Increasing the reliability of the grid is a good societal impact," he said. "Whether you're in the city or in rural areas, you will benefit from the increased reliability that Grain Belt will bring."

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