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Transmission: Impossible? Logistics, bureaucracy choke wind power plan

Bryce Gray, St. Louis Post-Dispatch on

Published in Business News

ST. LOUIS -- Experts say that building wind farms is the easy part. Far bigger complications arise when it comes to building transmission to distribute the energy produced -- challenges that are on full display in Missouri.

With western-neighbor Plains states teeming with wind energy, and lots of demand for that power in population centers farther east, Missouri straddles a bit of a geographic crossroads with transmission in mind.

Physically linking that supply with demand is never simple thanks to both logistics and bureaucracy -- as shown by Missouri's continued rejection of the stalled Grain Belt Express transmission line, which would bring wind power from Kansas to Indiana and into the grid beyond.

Some people, including the developers of the proposed project, say the state's failure to approve the line -- and its policies that currently stifle similar infrastructure -- is adding to an already-congested transmission bottleneck that has ripple effects beyond Missouri.

"It's almost the definition of a bottleneck," said Mark Lawlor, vice president with Clean Line Energy Partners, the Houston-based developer of the Grain Belt project. "It's a choke point on the entire system."

Though approved by the three other states along its path, the project has been held up by Missouri regulators invoking a controversial court ruling that says approval must first be given by each individual county along its path. That ruling has been widely criticized -- even by the state regulators themselves -- since it essentially gives county commissioners the ability to disrupt plans for power distribution on a regional, or even broader, scale.

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"The context that's unique about Missouri is this issue of county assents," said Scott Rupp, a state Public Service Commissioner who said he "reluctantly" voted against approving the Grain Belt project in August. "This would be the end of any Missouri-sited transmission in the future."

"It is sort of becoming a Missouri-specific challenge to get these (projects) done," Lawlor added. "Only Missouri is where we have these sort of unique problems."

Clean Line is challenging the ruling, and oral arguments on the matter were held Thursday at the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals in St. Louis.

But given Missouri's location and growing demand for ever-cheaper wind power, the Grain Belt Express is likely the first of what would be an emerging trend of prospective transmission projects to be jeopardized -- at least for now -- by Missouri's narrow interpretation of its legal authority to approve them.

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