The renewable energy network for two Boone County cities could expand if a controversial transmission line is built but legalities of its construction remains in hot debate, leaving the use of the line and its wind energy unknown.
Centralia and Columbia have approved contracts to purchase wind energy from the Grain Belt Express, a transmission line that will run through western Kansas, Missouri and Illinois. Last month, the Missouri Supreme Court decided not to review a Western District Court of Appeals opinion that overturned the Public Service Commission’s approval for the transmission line.
The commission had issued a “certificate of convenience and necessity” to build the line as long as county commissioners along the route approved it, but the court ruled the issuance was inappropriate. Six of the eight Missouri counties needed to approve the line have rejected it, but approval from the PSC would give Clean Line Energy Partners, the company building Grain Belt, eminent domain.
The issue is clouded between supporters and opponents of the line because the appeals court referenced a different section of law in its decision than what Grain Belt used in its application. Mark Lawlor, vice president of development for Clean Line Energy Partners, has said if the PSC rules against the Grain Belt, another court battle will ensue.
In the meantime, Centralia and Columbia play a waiting game and could look to other renewable energy sources in anticipation of a PSC decision or if the line is not constructed by certain deadlines.
An ordinance passed in 2004 requires the city of Columbia to increase its renewable energy usage. By next year, the city must purchase at least 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources. Water and Light Director Tad Johnsen has said the city is on track to do so.
The Columbia City Council approved to buy 35 megawatts at $3 million over 20 years from the Grain Belt Express, and payment is contingent on its approval. If the line is built in time, the city will start receiving power in 2021, two years before its renewable energy percentage is required to increase more.
Renewable energy must account for 25 percent of Columbia’s energy use by 2023. It is required to reach 30 percent by 2029.
Johnsen said the city will have to see what decision the PSC makes to determine if it will need to change plans. The city needed to pursue the purchasing agreement because the price was favorable, he said. Wind energy from the Grain Belt would be the cheapest for Columbia compared to the city’s other wind energy contracts at $21 per megawatt hour.
Water and Light Advisory Board member Dave Parker said the less expensive Grain Belt deal could be a factor in the city hitting the renewable energy thresholds. Last year, 6.68 percent of the city’s energy came from renewable energy sources and the city spent a little more than 50 percent of available funds on renewable energy, he said.
“For several years it’s been apparent to me that at the rate of what we were paying for renewable energy, if those rates cost continue at that level, we would be unable to achieve the city’s renewable energy goals,” Parker said.
Job expansion in Centralia is also dependent on the Grain Belt Express.
Clean Line has agreed to buy utility equipment from Hubbell Power Systems, which operates a large manufacturing plant in Centralia, for the Grain Belt project, Centralia City Administrator Matt Harline said. The deal is expected to add jobs there. A Hubbell representative did not respond to a request for comment.
The Grain Belt Express would be the first deliberate source of renewable energy for Centralia. Unlike Columbia, Centralia does not have an energy standard to meet. The city purchases power through NextEra Energy and while renewable energy is in the company’s portfolio, the city uses whatever energy is available.
Centralia’s purchase from Grain Belt is roughly $23 per megawatt hour. The purchase agreement is for 5,000 megawatt hours per year for $117,000 in the first year and more than $170,000 in its 20th year of use.
Under its contract with NextEra, Centralia pays $34.02 per megawatt hour. The contract with NextEra ends in May 2020.
Harline said the price from Grain Belt was a motivating factor in the city’s purchase, despite renewable energy not being a high priority among residents as reported on a citizen survey. The city expects to save $444,000 over 20 years with its Grain Belt purchase.
Depending on the PSC’s decision, Centralia could start using energy from Grain Belt by 2021.
“The longer deliberation takes, the more likely that time will be pushed back,” Harline said.
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