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Firm eyes ‘voluntary acquisition’

Clean Line says it will avoid eminent domain

TAMPICO – A company proposing transmission lines through southern Whiteside and Lee counties says it would use the power of eminent domain as little as possible.

It wants to negotiate with landowners for easements, an executive says. But that may be difficult. More and more farmers are objecting to the lines. 

On state Route 172 north of Tampico, signs are popping up in opposition to the project.

Rock Island Clean Line, a subsidiary of Houston-based Clean Line Energy Partners, has proposed an east-west line across northern Illinois, ending near Morris, about 60 miles southwest of Chicago.

Clean Line hasn’t chosen a final route, but it plans to do so in the next few weeks, said Hans Detweiler, the company’s Chicago-based director of development. It already has released alternative routes. 

One of the biggest concerns is the effect of the towers on center pivot irrigation systems. Farmers fear the towers could interfere with the systems’ revolutions, removing acreage from irrigation. 

That’s a particular problem in southern Whiteside County, where farms depend on irrigation systems because of the sandier soil.

The company pledges to lessen the impact to farms. One alternative route is north of Tampico, alongside existing ComEd lines. In that area, the company would align the towers with ComEd’s, which would reduce the affected acreage, Detweiler said.

In areas without existing lines, the company plans to put the towers in the corners of fields, where the irrigation systems don’t reach.

‘As much voluntary acquisition as possible’

Clean Line, Detweiler said, plans to refile its application for the power lines with the Illinois Commerce Commission in the next few weeks. It will include a preferred route and an alternate.

With most such projects, he said, companies nearly always negotiate with landowners, rather than use the power of eminent domain.

“We’ll try to do as much voluntary acquisition as possible,” Detweiler said.

In some cases, though, such as property with absentee landowners or where estates are in probate, the company may have to seek eminent domain, he said.

In its initial application, Detweiler said, the company isn’t seeking condemnation authority.

According to the company’s landowner compensation fact sheet, a landowner could get $88,000 to $112,000 for two towers on a half-mile-long easement, depending on the tower type and assuming farmland is worth $8,000 an acre.

The fact sheet also says Clean Line may provide more compensation for crop damage and interference with irrigation systems.

Company says it’ll get no government help

Opponents of the project have formed the group Block RICL. They say they have put up more than 2,500 signs opposing the project along the proposed routes in Illinois.

They suspect the project will benefit from government assistance of some kind, whether it be direct funding or tax breaks.

Detweiler said his company will receive no help for the project, which will connect wind farms in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota with population centers in Chicago and to the east.

The wind farms, though, benefit from the federal production tax credit.

Mary Mauch, one of the leaders of Block RICL, said she doesn’t buy the argument that Clean Line will get no government help. She said it can’t survive on just wind energy alone, adding that the wind doesn’t blow all the time.

“I don’t see how it can be successful without government assistance,” Mauch said. “It could be the next Solyndra,” referring to the solar energy company that went belly up after receiving more than $500 million in federal loan guarantees.

Detweiler, however, said current transmission lines bringing wind power to the east are inadequate. Once Clean Line finishes its project, he said, companies likely will build more wind farms in the Great Plains because they can link to customers.

Project ‘will make a lot of sense’

Clean Line is seeking public utility status with the Illinois Commerce Commission, which regulates utilities. It argues that because its power lines will end in Morris, the greater supply will put downward pressure on electricity prices, benefiting the public.

Other private companies such as ComEd also are designated public utilities, Detweiler noted.

As for eminent domain, it’s not unusual for a private transmission company to seek public utility status from the Illinois Commerce Commission, said Beth Bosch, an agency spokeswoman. With that status, a company can go to court to get eminent domain authority.

Mauch, who lives near Mendota, questions whether Clean Line should be considered a public utility.

“They are selling the power to some other big company on the other end,” she said. “They are making money specifically off of these wires.”

ComEd, by contrast, delivers electricity to customers, Mauch said.

At year’s end, the wind energy production tax credit will expire. The prospects of its renewal look increasingly dim.

Clean Line, though, plans to proceed regardless.

“Surveys show that 80 to 90 percent of Americans support wind energy,” Detweiler said. “As long as federal government policy is reflective of that level of support, this project will make a lot of sense.”

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