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Tina Casey headshot

Wind Power Wiggles Through Midwest Transmission Roadblocks

By Tina Casey

The breezy lands of the Midwest lay claim to some of the best sites for wind farms in the U.S., and electricity consumers to the east are hungry for clean power. But connecting the two has proved challenging. In addition to the obstacles faced by any large infrastructure project, new clean-power transmission lines face opposition from competing interests in the energy sector.

However, as demonstrated by several recent developments, it looks like the opposition is set up for a giant game of whack-a-mole, and at least one of several proposed wind transmission lines will get off the drawing board. The question is: Which one?

The Midwest Transmission Line

That question is fairly easy to answer. Back in 2013, route selection was accomplished for the Midwest Transmission Line -- which will hook up eastern Nebraska, northwestern Missouri and points beyond with renewable energy. According to a transmission industry report, the line is scheduled to go live this year.

In addition to shuttling wind power to points east, the new line is intended to ease a transmission bottleneck and provide for emergency backup in the region.

Nebraska is also working to accelerate its slow-growing wind sector. Wind development in the state passed a legislative milestone last week when state senators approved a bill that would drop an onerous requirement from Nebraska's wind farm approval process, the Omaha World-Herald newspaper reported.

That's a huge step forward for a state that has been reluctant to tap into its wind resources, to say the least. The regional grid is already saturated with wind power, so wind developers in Nebraska are banking on the construction of new transmission lines that would give them access to out-of-state markets.

Here's the World-Herald on that topic:

"Nebraska ranks third nationally in winds ready to be tapped but behind all surrounding states except for Missouri when it comes to installed wind-generating capacity. For example, while Iowa had more than 6,200 megawatts of wind power capacity last year and Kansas had nearly 3,800 megawatts, Nebraska had 890."

One thing standing in Nebraska's way, at least until recently, was opposition from the leader of the state's rural electric co-operatives. However, it appears that competition from nearby Iowa and Kansas has lit a fire under state lawmakers.

A tale of two wind transmission projects

Two other Missouri wind transmission projects demonstrate how rocky the road can get.

As reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper last week, the transmission subsidiary of Ameren Corp. got approval for its new 100-mile Mark Twain line from the Missouri Public Service Commission. That clears the way to exercise eminent domain.

However, local opposition could land the Mark Twain project in legal limbo until the courts decide whether or not the commission can override county lawmakers.

The same commission, though, blocked another multi-state wind transmission line last summer. Dubbed the Grain Belt Express, the 780-mile project had already been greenlighted by Kansas, Illinois and Indiana.

The Grain Belt Express is one of several wind energy transmission lines planned by startup Clean Line Energy, but Missouri regulators decided against providing the company with utility status. No status means no eminent domain, effectively putting a halt to the project.

Clean Line plans to come back to the commission with a plan for establishing its service as a public benefit to state consumers, though that could take a while, the Post-Dispatch reported.

Iowa House is not feeling it ...

Another Clean Line wind transmission project called Rock Island is also feeling the heat. Last week, Iowa state lawmakers threw a roadblock at the 500-mile, Iowa-to-Illinois line in the form of a new bill, which would put a time limit on property negotiations. Transmission developers (namely, Clean Line) that fail to bring 75 percent of property owners on board within three years would lose their eminent domain option, effectively killing the project.

The bill passed the Iowa House of Representatives, but according to Radio Iowa, the state Senate doesn't seem too enthusiastic, so Rock Island may yet pass this hurdle.

... but the U.S. Energy Department is

Clean Line is working on another massive wind transmission project called the Plains and Eastern line, billed as the largest renewable energy project in U.S. history. To smooth the way past state-level obstacles, the Energy Department partnered with the project through its capacity as a regional power supply agency.

The 705-mile line is intended to connect wind farms in the Oklahoma panhandle with western Tennessee by way of Arkansas. Wind farms in Texas may also come into the mix.

The Energy Department seal of approval doesn't guarantee smooth sailing, and Arkansas lawmakers have already begun arguing that the state has final say in declaring what counts as a utility for the purposes of exercising eminent domain.

Upper Midwest in play

Meanwhile, a new complex of transmission lines totaling 800 miles is under development in the upper Midwest states of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. The massive project, spearheaded by a group of 11 utilities, is already partially energized and is designed to accommodate more renewable energy in the region, among other purposes.

As for demand, the American Wind Energy Association is coming out with its much-anticipated annual report on April 12. The organization has been been teasing out some highlights over the past several weeks, one of which is the impact of non-utility buyers on the wind market.

According to the association, in 2015 almost 10 percent of total new wind capacity went to long-term contracts for individual corporations and other "emerging" buyers.

The Rocky Mountain Institute also notes that the non-utility sector is clamoring for more wind energy.

As demand for wind continues to percolate up through the U.S. business community, look for more states to follow Nebraska's lead and smooth the way for more wind farms and transmission lines, too.

Image (screenshot): Grain Belt Express via Clean Line Energy.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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