Industry: Two proposed bills would make new transmission projects in Illinois ‘virtually impossible’

Two pieces of legislation working their way through the Illinois General Assembly would place strict limits on expedited review of transmission projects by the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC), would affect Ameren Transmission’s proposed Illinois Rivers project and, according to Ameren and others, could bring transmission development in Illinois to a complete halt.

Identical companion measures Senate Bill (S.B.) 1874 and House Bill (H.B.) 2240 seek to stop any transmisison projects that are more than five miles in length from using Illinois’ “fast track” procenss. The prohibition would also apply to projects that “advance contiguously to a project filed with the commission during 2012,” a reference to the Illinois Rivers project.

As proposed, the Illinois Rivers project would extend approximately 330 miles from Palmyra, Mo., to Sugar Creek, Ind., passing through 18 Illinois counties.

“The bill itself does more than just eliminate the expedited process; it would make new construction of transmission lines in Illinois virtually impossible,” a spokesperson for Ameren Illinois told TransmissionHub March 4. “If Illinois wants to basically stop the modernization of our electric grid, this legislation would do that.”

Under a law passed in 2010, utilities can file a project under an expedited review provision that gives the utility 180 days to complete three public hearings in each county touched by the proposed project and to file a completed application with a preferred route and at least one alternate route which is both viable and buildable. The law then gives the ICC up to 225 days to review the application and issue a decision.

Ameren filed its application for Illinois Rivers under the expedited process.

“Obviously the impetus behind [the expedited legislation] was to aid and assist in these major projects that are coming before the commission now,” Sherman Elliott, who served on the ICC as a commissioner from 2008 to 2012, told TransmissionHub.

The bills, which are currently in the Senate Energy and House Public Utilities Committees, are viewed by some as a backlash to the original legislation creating the expedited process.

State Sen. Chapin Rose, who sponsored S.B. 1874, said the bill was introduced in response to concerns from constituents who felt Ameren was moving too quickly.

“Landowners currently affected in my district felt the expedited process did not allow enough time to respond,” Rose said in a statement.

Prior to the passage of the expediting legislation, however, there were no limits on how long the approval process could take.

“The ability of parties to exercise their due process rights can hamper the utilities’ ability to build, and the legislation limits that,” Elliott said. “Now you’re getting the pendulum swinging the other way with people feeling like their due-process rights are being abridged and they want to express them.”

However, project developer Ameren countered that the bills go beyond merely eliminating a shortened review period, and pointed to a “long laundry list of items” that would preclude power line placement.

In fact, both pieces of legislation contain language that would prohibit transmission lines from being constructed within 1.5 miles of 27 different types of areas or structures including agricultural zoned land, commercial use areas, designated recreational use areas, planned development areas, existing residential use areas and planned residential areas.

The bills also prohibit transmission lines within 1.5 miles of geologically sensitive areas, national historic landmarks, nursing or assisted living facilities, licensed day care centers, schools, traditional cultural properties, trees or woodlots, water well sites, or wetlands.

Opposition to the bills is growing as various organizations watch their progress and evaluate their potential effects.

“These bills would certainly cause some real difficulty in trying to site any kind of transmission line in the future,” James Monk, president of the Illinois Energy Association, told TransmissionHub, noting that new transmission will be needed to maintain reliability. “Especially if we lose some older coal-fired generation, we’re going to need to make sure the grid is able to withstand that loss.”

The Illinois Energy Association represents the state’s investor-owned utilities and natural gas utilities in the public policy arena. Monk said his group wants to ensure that the expedited siting remains available as an option should developers of other projects, including the Rock Island Clean Line, want to pursue it.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 51, which worked for the passage of the expedited siting legislation in 2010, is also opposed to the bills.

The original legislation creating an expedited review process passed in 2010 without a single negative vote in either the House or the Senate, and was signed into law by current Illinois Governor Pat Quinn.

In their current form, the limits in S.B. 1874 and H.B. 2240 would apply to all applications filed before the effective date of the act, for which the commission has not issued a decision before the effective date of the act. The ICC has until Aug. 20 to issue its decision on Illinois River, while the General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn May 31.

Ameren Transmission and Ameren Illinois are subsidiaries of Ameren (NYSE:AEE).