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Missouri House Backs Landowners Fighting Wind Energy Line

Power lines
Cameron Kirby / Unsplash

The Missouri House passed legislation Thursday that could effectively block one of the nation's largest wind energy projects by prohibiting its developers from using eminent domain to run a high-voltage power line across the Midwest.

The House vote targets a $2.3 billion project that would carry electricity generated by Kansas windmills on a 780-mile (1,255-kilometer) path across rural Missouri and Illinois before hooking into a power grid in Indiana serving eastern states.

The project's private developers say it has the potential to bring affordable, renewable energy to millions of homes. But the long-delayed power line has faced opposition from some property owners in its path and trouble clearing some regulatory requirements.

It appeared to overcome a major hurdle last month when Missouri utility regulators reversed previous denials and granted their approval — a step that could allow developers to pursue condemnation cases to acquire easements from unwilling sellers.

But legislation intended to block that passed the House 115-35 and now heads to the Senate. On Thursday, Republican Gov. Mike Parson appeared to show support for the legislation.

"I am a firm believer in protecting individual freedom and rights of private property owners, especially our farmers and ranchers," Parson said in a written statement to The Associated Press. "We will continue to stay engaged with the legislature to ensure that we are equipped to protect all Missourians from potential threats of government overreach for private gain."

Former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, had backed the project and, after leaving office in 2017, successfully argued a case before the Missouri Supreme Court that overturned a prior regulatory rejection of it.

If the Missouri legislation against eminent domain becomes law, the Grain Belt Express power line could be zapped — or at least forced to zigzag along a new route, if developers can find cooperative landowners.

Houston-based Clean Line Energy Partners has been working since 2010 to develop the direct-current line capable of transmitting about 4,000 megawatts of power. Chicago-based Invenergy announced last fall that it was acquiring the project, though the sale still needs regulatory approval.

A coalition of municipal utilities already has agreed to buy a portion of the 500 megawatts of power that would be made available in Missouri — a deal that helped persuade utility regulators that the project is in the public interest.

Invenergy spokeswoman Beth Conley said the company is disappointed that Missouri lawmakers are attempting to stop the project. She said the power line could result in $32 million in payments to Missouri landowners and $7 million in property taxes to local Missouri governments in its first year of operation.

The Missouri Public Utility Alliance said the cheaper wind power from the transmission line could save $12.8 million annually for the residents served by 39 municipal utilities.

But some lawmakers said discounted electricity rates for certain people shouldn't justify taking property rights away from others. Though most opponents focused on the potential use of eminent domain, Republican Rep. Tim Remole also questioned the wisdom of relying on renewable energy.

"The wind does not always blow, and the sun does not always shine," Remole said. "We can depend on upon fossil fuels."

One of the project's defenders is Democratic Rep. Deb Lavender, whose suburban St. Louis hometown of Kirkwood plans to purchase some of the wind power.

"It's time for us to take our head out of the coal bin and realize there is a future for our children on this planet that we don't seem to be watching out for," Lavender said.