Iowa regulators again deny transmission developer’s request to split approval process

The future of a major wind energy transmission project is again uncertain after Iowa regulators on Monday afternoon rejected the developer’s third request that it change the process for granting project approval.

Although the project’s developer, Clean Line Energy Partners, wasn’t prepared to comment on Tuesday, general counsel Cary Kottler indicated a few weeks ago that if the company’s request was rejected for a third time, it would raise questions about the future of the proposed Rock Island Clean Line, which is designed to move wind power from northwest Iowa to the Chicago area and further east.

“This project won’t move forward if all the right-of-way has to be acquired before the route is approved,” Kottler told Midwest Energy News.

In recent years, Clean Line has asked the Iowa Utilities Board to decide first on the need for the project and on the route it would take, and to rule later in a separate proceeding on the possible use of eminent domain with regard to individual parcels of land lying within the project’s route.

Both state law and the utilities board’s regulations require those questions be decided together, in one proceeding.

In its decision on Monday, the utilities board acknowledged that Clean Line had addressed some concerns raised earlier by the board. However, the commissioners said they were concerned that dividing the process, as requested by Clean Line, would be burdensome to affected landowners by requiring that they, and possibly their lawyers, appear at two hearings.

Secondly, the commissioners said they believed that restructuring the process as requested by Clean Line would shift the balance of power. While the process as currently outlined tends to give more negotiating power to landowners, the board said that granting Clean Line’s request would give the developer an advantage in discussions about rights-of-way.

Clean Line contends that Iowa’s approval process, while appropriate for transmission projects proposed by state-regulated utilities, is burdensome for companies that can’t pass along costs to ratepayers.

Clean Line’s Kottler explained that a merchant transmission developer like his company gets its funds from private investors, and that there is no assurance they will be compensated for money invested in a project like the Rock Island. Splitting the approval process would allow Clean Line to minimize its losses, in the event the project failed to obtain approval from the state.

While Clean Line noted that Iowa’s process is different from other states, “the Board’s concern is with following and implementing Iowa law,” according to the decision.

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