CENTER, Mo. | The owner of the proposed Grain Belt Express wind-energy transmission lines across Missouri is now promising to add broadband internet connections along its route.
On Thursday, Invenergy, the company that now owns the project, made its broadband announcement. Although the proposal would add broadband to the Grain Belt infrastructure, it would not guarantee high-speed internet service, since that is a business decision for internet companies.
“Discussions are underway with Missouri internet service providers who could use the infrastructure to provide internet for nearly 1 million underserved Missourians,” the company said in a news release.
High-speed internet service is being discussed in the 2020 session of the Missouri Legislature, where Rep. Louis Riggs, R-Hannibal, is among lawmakers who have filed bills that deal mostly with funding for broadband across the state. On the federal level, without providing specifics, during his State of the Union speech to Congress last week, President Donald Trump said the he is “committed to ensuring that every citizen can have access to high-speed internet, including — and especially in — rural America.”
The prospect of broadband access adds another element to the years-long fight over the Grain Belt project.
Grain Belt Express is a project to transmit up to 4,000 megawatts of electric power each day from vast wind farms spread out over western Kansas across Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana to be wheeled into the East Coast power grid.
The project was certified as a utility in 2019 by the Missouri Public Service, reversing previous denials, giving Grain Belt the right to acquire land through the project via eminent domain.
The Missouri Senate is now considering a bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Frankfort, whose district covers two of the eight rural counties in the path of the Grain Belt project – Ralls and Monroe. His bill will prohibit developers of the 4,000-megawatt a day high-level transmission project from forcing landowners to sell property.
“This seems to be another ploy to sell Grain Belt Express,” Hansen said. “I'm very skeptical until I hear more information. There are several questions, for instance, how will this impact the coops that have invested in broadband around the state.”
Hansen said anything that would take money from the cooperatives that have working on broadband would be disastrous. In addition, he wonders if changing the scope of the project means Grain Belt should go back to the Public Service Commission to consider any changes.
“These are just some of the kinds of questions that need to be asked,” Hansen said.
The proposed route cuts through the heart of farmland across central Missouri.
Kansas and Indiana have approved the project, as have regulators in Illinois. However, courts in Illinois have blocked the approval, ordering the issue back to state utility regulators.
Invenergy touted broadband access as a benefit for Missouri in its announcement last week, saying that more than 250,000 residents of rural Missouri would benefit from this new infrastructure.
“We are very invested in the communities where we develop and build projects and where Invenergy employees live and work,” said Beth Conley, spokeswoman for Invenergy. “Broadband is a natural fit for this project and, working with local internet service providers, we are pleased to add it to the list of benefits Grain Belt Express will deliver to Missouri.”
State Sen. Cindy O'Laughlin, R-Shelbina, who is sponsoring a bill similar to Hansen's in the Senate to block eminent domain by Grain Belt Express, welcomes any effort to provide broadband to rural Missouri, as long as it does not involve forcing landowners to sell rights-of-way.
“Broadband is a vital service for rural areas and our sustainability. If Invenergy could provide it and win landowner approval without using eminent domain, it would be a win for everyone,” O'Laughlin said.