A bill awaiting debate in the Missouri House intended to block a wind power transmission line from being strung across Missouri has some electric utilities concerned about the precedent it sets for eminent domain.

If it passes, the bill would make it very tough to complete the line, Dennis Klusmeyer, city superintendent of Shelbina, said Tuesday on a conference call organized by the Missouri Public Utility Alliance.

“My fear of that is the precedent it would set within the state of Missouri for any future developments,” Klusmeyer said.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Frankford, would prohibit taking easements by eminent domain to make way for the Grain Belt Express, a planned $2.3 billion transmission line, which Chicago-based Invenergy bought last year. The line would carry electricity from the Iron Star wind farm in southwestern Kansas, across Missouri and Indiana, and into Illinois. The line would cross eight north Missouri counties, including Monroe and Ralls, which are represented by Hansen.

Targeted at the Grain Belt Express, the bill would also apply to similar projects. It bans all private entities from using eminent domain to acquire easements to build “above-ground merchant lines" if less than 12 percent of the power will be consumed by Missouri customers.

Any utility system in the state, whether it’s water, sewer, electric or telecommunications, has the power of eminent domain, Klusmeyer said. The bill could be construed to limit the use of eminent domain for “pretty much any utility in the state,” he said, even though it’s limited to “above-ground merchant lines.”

“That can trickle down into just about any type of utility expansion that’s done, whether it’s through Missouri American, or maybe even Ameren or Associated (Electric Cooperative),” he said. “That’s my fear of what it’s going to do to any type of infrastructure improvement or expansion in the state.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has the power to regulate transmission, not the state legislature, said Mark Petty director of Kirkwood Electric. Every transmission project can be difficult for landowners to grapple with, which is why they are considered by a commission rather than elected officials who haven’t been reviewing all the facts, he said.

“It’s easy for an entity that objects to want to do an end run, even after all the other facts have been presented and laws been interpreted and reviewed,” he said.

The bill isn't yet on the House calendar but it has passed through two committees and the next step is the House floor. House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, is backing the bill and he released a statement April 1 putting his support behind the bill.

“In light of the recent PSC decision on the Grain Belt Express, the General Assembly will act to protect Missourians from private companies trying to seize their land through eminent domain,” Hahr said in the statement. “The legislation the House is moving forward is vital for many Missourians who otherwise would be forced to allow unreasonable restrictions on their family farms, damaging the value of their land and taking away their private property rights.”

After years of legal proceedings, the Missouri Public Service Commission approved Grain Belt Express in March, which allows Invenergy to take easements by eminent domain like a public utility. Landowners groups have argued land shouldn’t be taken by eminent domain to benefit a private company like Invenergy. That power should be reserved for public utilities, they said, and they’ll appeal the commission’s ruling.

The Missouri Public Energy Pool, which serves 35 cities, including Fayette, Vandalia and Marshall, has already agreed to buy 60 megawatts of power off the line. Columbia and Kirkwood have also agreed to purchase energy from the line.

Since the electricity is still coming to customers through public utilities, customers will have the same low rates and price stability, Petty said. The wind electricity from the Grain Belt Express is also cheaper than the alternatives, and Kirkwood could save up to a third of what it currently pays for electricity, Petty said.

Cities served by the public energy pool will also see savings, but not as large as Kirkwood. Each city would save about 3-4 percent, said John Grotzinger, vice president of engineering operations and power supply at the Missouri Public Utility Alliance. Those savings would be passed on to ratepayers, he said. 

bcrowley@gatehousemedia.com