Since the presidential election last year, there has been lots of discussion about the need to make regulatory reviews of infrastructure projects more modern and efficient. President Trump has called for federal regulatory reforms and last week entered an executive order designed to make the federal environmental review and permitting process for infrastructure projects (including energy production, generation and transmission projects) more “coordinated, predictable and transparent.”
In an interesting turn of events and further evidence of the difficulty in getting permission to transmit renewable power from sites in rural areas to markets needing the product, the Missouri PSC this week rejected - for the second time - the proposed Grain Belt Express line that would run from wind farms in western Kansas through to Indiana and the east coast markets. All of the other states have approved the project. Ironically, according to the Associated Press, four of the five Missouri commissioners said that they found the proposal to be in the public interest, needed, economically feasible and beneficial to the public. However, they assert their hands were tied because of a recent Missouri Court of Appeals order indicating (apparently for the first time) that a developer must first obtain county approvals for running wire over roads before the state can approve. Because Grain Belt Express did not obtain those county approvals prior to submitting its revised application with the Missouri PSC – even if such was not required prior to the recent court order – the commissioners felt unable to act.
The costs associated with converting wind and solar into electrons may be stabilizing, or even lowering, but the unforeseeable regulatory risks and delays in getting a project to the construction phase remains a serious issue for developers and grid operators. The developer of the Grain Belt Express line, Clean Line Energy Partners, is now considering its options, including going back to FERC and getting federal approval for the project. FERC has previously granted the Grain Belt Express line authority to charge negotiated rates more than three years ago.
This may be an interesting test of the Trump administration’s call for faster, easier and more efficient infrastructure project reviews. A difficult decision for Clean Line, no doubt.