Clean Line Partners suspends transmission line to ship Iowa wind energy

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A company proposing a $2 billion transmission line to ship Iowa wind energy to electric customers in Illinois confirmed Thursday that it has asked regulators to suspend their review while the company figures out how best to move forward with its plan.

Clean Line Energy Partners said it is assessing plans for the Rock Island Clean Line, amid opposition from some landowners and uncertain odds of gaining regulatory approval. The Iowa Utilities Board has granted the company's request to pause a technical review of its petitions to build the high-voltage, overhead line through 16 counties.

The board is the last major regulatory agency needed to sign off on the power line, which the company says would transmit enough electricity to power 1.4 million homes in the Midwest. The project has hit a snag in Iowa because some rural landowners have refused to sign voluntary easements granting access to build on their land, and critics oppose the use of eminent domain for the line.

The line would start in northwest Iowa and ship power produced by wind turbines 500 miles to a converter station near Chicago. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the project in 2012, and the Illinois Commerce Commission gave its OK last year.

In Iowa, the project has recorded easements for only 176 of more than 1,500 properties that would be required, according to the Preservation of Rural Iowa Alliance, which is spearheading opposition to the plan.

Those closely monitoring the project say they were told months ago it had been put on hold. Land agents haven't been in the state for months.

Iowa Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, a supporter of the line, said at a wind energy conference in September that the plan had "kind of been placed on hold right now." Clean Line Energy Partners spokeswoman Sarah Bray said the next day that the project was "certainly still moving forward," with biological studies, wind resource assessment and commercial discussions.

Bray struck a different tone in response to an inquiry on Thursday.

"Given the unique regulatory structure in Iowa, we are currently assessing ways to move the project forward and continue easement negotiations without incurring significant financial and regulatory risk," she wrote in an email.

The Iowa Utilities Board dealt the company a setback this year when it said it would decide whether to approve the project and grant the use of eminent domain in the same hearing. Bray said the ruling means Clean Line Energy Partners would have to invest "tens of millions of dollars" to acquire land while running the risk that regulators could still reject the transmission line as not in the public interest.

The board said having separate hearings would be a detriment to landowners.

Carolyn Sheridan, president of the alliance opposing the plan, said landowners are anxious to have a decision on the project's future.

"We call it having our land held hostage because we don't know what's going to happen," she said.

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