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Clean Line withdraws Iowa project pending Illinois decision

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Clean Island Rock Island western Iowa route

PRIMGHAR, Iowa -- Clean Line Energy Partners announced Thursday it is withdrawing its application to the Iowa Utilities Board to construct a transmission line across the state pending a court challenge to the project in Illinois.

The Houston-based Clean Line has been working for years to get approval for the Rock Island Clean Line project, a 500-mile line that would begin in Northwest Iowa's O'Brien County and deliver wind-generated electricity to Illinois and states in the eastern part of the U.S.

The line, which would deliver 3,500 megawatts of power, has drawn opposition from rural landowners and others. Backers said the project would lead to $7 billion in new wind farm investments, the creation of more than 5,000 construction jobs and in excess of 500 operational positions.

Nearly three years ago, Clean Line signed a $200 million deal with Sabre Industries to provide poles to support the direct current line. Sabre's plant in Sioux City's Southbridge Business Park had been targeted to manufacture an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 poles.

Clean Line has gone before regulators in Iowa and Illinois seeking permission to build the transmission line. And while the Illinois Commerce Commission granted permission in 2014, the case has been tied up in the courts. An Illinois appellate court reversed the commission in August, and last month the state's Supreme Court agreed to review the case.

Clean Line officials said Thursday that the timing of the Illinois court case and a schedule set out by the Iowa Utilities Board led to the withdrawal.

"Under the IUB’s timeline, we would have been required in January to identify specific parcels for eminent domain application in several counties, and we did not wish to do that at this point," Clean Line Energy Vice President Hans Detweiler said in an email. "We prefer to get resolution of the Illinois approval first, and then revisit the Iowa process."

The Iowa board approved a procedural schedule in August that would have required all the parcels pegged for eminent domain to have been identified by May. That schedule was prompted by a state law signed last spring that would have required a decision in the case by May 27, 2018. The schedule contemplated a hearing on the application in January 2018.

A Clean Line filing with the utilities board Thursday said it did not expect the Illinois Supreme Court to issue a decision before next May. And it added that it would not be an "efficient utilization of resources" to go forward, including submitting documents related to eminent domain proceedings, until the case is decided.

Critics of the project hailed the decision on Thursday, but were nonetheless cautious. "I think that we have to be guardedly optimistic because we’ve been in this for three-plus years," said Carolyn Sheridan, president of the board of directors of the Preservation of Rural Iowa Alliance.

Still, she called it "a very Merry Christmas for Iowans."

Opponents have worried that land would be condemned for the project, and they've worked to convince landowners not to sign leases for the line to run through their land. Sheridan said they have been successful in limiting the number of leases. Critics also have cast doubt on the economic benefits.

Clean Line, though, said even with the withdrawal Thursday, the need for such a transmission line remains.

"Projects backed by private investment like the Rock Island Clean Line address our country's continued demand for electric infrastructure," Detweiler said.

The company has said the Rock Island project will bring about a $7 billion investment in new wind farms and save millions in energy costs.

What happens from here appears to depend largely on what the Illinois Supreme Court does. Clean Line said it will make a determination about a new filing after the court makes its ruling.

The company's Iowa case was filed two years ago, but Detweiler said that much of that time has been taken up with procedural matters and a new filing does not mean it would take another two years to get to this point again. In a news release Thursday, the company said the Illinois case could be resolved as early as the middle of 2017.

As part of Clean Line's Iowa plans, a $250 million station to convert the wind-generated electricity from AC to DC current would be built in O’Brien County, the starting point for the route, which also would pass through Clay County in Northwest Iowa. The project had attracted fierce opposition from landowners in both counties.

The Journal's Dave Dreeszen contributed to this story.


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