As Liberty Utilities-Empire District awaits a final order from the Public Service Commission on its proposed wind-energy generation plan, the Office of Public Counsel remains opposed to the proposal, according to testimony and briefs filed with the PSC.

Nearly a year ago, in July 2018, the PSC gave the utility some preliminary approvals such as permission to record the costs of building turbines and to have them included in its next rate case, and to establish a framework by which depreciation of the wind turbines' value could be accounted.

The Office of Public Counsel, a regulatory watchdog that looks out for the interests of ratepayers in regulatory proceedings, asked last year for those approvals to be reversed and, according to its most recent brief, remains unconvinced of the benefits Liberty-Empire has said the plan will bring its customers.

"In any case, civil or otherwise, proponents bear the burden of proof," wrote Nathan Williams, chief deputy public counsel for the office. "However, (PSC) staff presumes that whatever the company offers is refutable only by 'substantial evidence,' thereby foisting the burden of proof onto critics. Why the utilities receive this deference from staff, but not the public, is disconcerting."

The PSC staff, a group of regulators that considers the effects of utility matters on society as a whole, including ratepayers, and makes recommendations to the five commissioners who make up the PSC, said in its recent brief that agreements have already been made on conditions that will ensure the wind plan benefits customers.

"OPC has provided little to no support for most of its positions," the staff brief said. "The conditions that OPC requests be imposed on Empire were first introduced in a position statement and have only 12 lines of evidence on the record to support their imposition. The (2018 approval) outlines resolutions to the contested issues that are in the public interest and will provide benefits for Empire ratepayers. Opposing parties have not presented compelling evidence to support resolving any issue in their favor."

In a statement issued by a company spokesperson this week, Liberty-Empire said it "eagerly awaits" the final decision from regulators.

"Pending final regulatory approval for this project, this plan enables us to generate up to 600 megawatts of clean energy, provides cost savings for customers over the life of the project and offers economic benefits to our local communities," the statement said. "Changes in costs, innovation, and technology have made this abundant, natural resource a cost-effective and reliable way to produce the renewable energy our customers expect.”

Other parties involved in the case, such as environmental groups Renew Missouri and Sierra Club, have indicated in filings that they back Liberty-Empire's plan to construct wind turbines that would generate 600 megawatts of wind energy. The Missouri Division of Energy, an agency under the umbrella of the state's Department of Economic Development, also supports Liberty-Empire's proposal.

The company plans to pursue a financing partnership with Wells Fargo that would take advantage of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal tax incentives to pay for roughly half of the project, but the credits expire in 2020.

Empire’s original proposal called for a $1.5 billion project that would generate 800 megawatts of wind energy — more than triple its previous levels — and close its coal-fired plant in Asbury more than 15 years early. Throughout the course of negotiations, though, the utility agreed to delay the closure of the coal-fired plant and to scale back the targeted production to 600 megawatts.

A 2018 agreement filed between Empire, the Midwest Energy Consumers Group (a group of large-scale energy users), PSC staff, the Missouri Department of Economic Development and Renew Missouri Advocates all recommended that the PSC move the project forward on the condition that the coal-fired plant in Asbury not be closed as part of the wind plan.

The turbines will be split among two spots in Southwest Missouri and another in Southeast Kansas. The two sites in Missouri, which will generate 150 megawatts each, are being called King’s Point and North Fork Ridge, and turbines will exist in parts of Jasper, Dade, Barton and Lawrence counties. The utility has tens of thousands of acres under lease for the turbines, although only part of that land will be used.

The other half of the company’s wind production will take place in Neosho County, Kansas, north of Parsons.

The plan calls for the company to invest $1.1 billion generating the 600 megawatts of energy.