Amid a reported FBI investigation about some recent Independence Power & Light projects, another hefty project for the utility is on the table. One of the project proposals includes partners associated with a previous controversial project.
The city of Independence received two responses to its request for information sent out early this year to solicit ideas for repurposing the Blue Valley Power Plant, which the city plans to shutter in June.
One proposal is for a 50-megawatt battery storage facility next to the plant buildings that would be leased from the city. The other is for an approximately $150 million biofuel power plant. City Manager Zach Walker says any decision on any repurpose project is at least several months away.
The biofuel proposal came from Titan Fish, a real estate investment firm in the metro area that bought the former Rockwood Golf Club land shortly before the city bought it in 2017 for its community solar farm. Among the other listed partners are former IPL Director Leon Daggett and lobbyist Steven Tilley, whose lobbying firm’s extensive client portfolio includes IPL as well as Gardner Capital, which partnered with MC Power to build the solar firm. Until mid-March, Tilley also lobbied several months for Titan Fish.
Given the investigation reportedly surrounding the solar farm and Missouri City Power Plant demolition projects, one City Council member questions why such a project is on the table when there are several other pressing matters. Among them are the new electric rate schedule; contract negotiations with the local electric workers union, which includes displaced Blue Valley employees; and an outside management firm coming in soon to oversee IPL.
“I just think there’s too many moving parts with IPL right now,” Council Member Karen DeLuccie said. “I don’t want to see a Missouri City 2, and why work with a company that perhaps is being investigated by the FBI.” Her reference to Missouri City was to the council three years ago approving the far higher of two bids to tear down the plant.
FBI asking questions
Multiple council members, including one not involved in either project, said the FBI talked with them as part of its investigation.
Independence Mayor Eileen Weir said in December the FBI had not talked with her and said it didn’t plan to talk with her as part of its investigation.
An FBI spokesperson said the department would not confirm or deny any such investigation.
Tilley says he has not been contacted by the FBI and is “unaware of an FBI investigation.”
Weir has been questioned by some about campaign contributions in October 2017 – specifically, $2,600 from four Missouri political action committees with some connection to Tilley. A couple of the PACs had earlier received thousands of dollars from Gardner Capital. The contributions came just a few days before the council approved the Rockwood purchase for the solar farm. That purchase for $985,000 became final in November, though Titan Fish obtained the land for $550,000 just a few months earlier. Council Member Tom Van Camp, who had been active in negotiations, claimed the city couldn't get any lower than $650,000 in its discussions with the original owner.
The city hired Tilley, a former Missouri speaker of the House, to lobby for Power & Light in 2016, and he's lobbied for Gardner Capital since 2013.
The council had authorized in June 2017 to work with MC Power on expanding the solar farm after the initial installment on Bundschu Road quickly sold out. MC Power paid a half-million dollar upfront lease as part of the Rockwood deal.
Weir said the timing happened to be just that, as the city had been discussing solar farm expansion for several months. She said more than once last week she's never pledged a vote in exchange for a contribution, adding at one point she's declined contributions from entities with which the city is negotiating.
Weir also said none of the PACs have any involvement with Rockwood, and she never discussed Rockwood with Tilley and had not met Mark Gardner until he came to Independence for the solar farm groundbreaking.
No immediate action
Even before the coronavirus pandemic threw operations everywhere into a whirlwind, City Manager Walker said, there’s nothing imminent with repurposing Blue Valley.
“If you think of this thing like a funnel – and we can’t award a contract off an RFI – it’s the top of the funnel,” Walker said.
The city has no interest in spending money to demolish the plant, nor in sinking much money into a new use for the plant. The city sent the request for information, Walker said, to tell the private sector “Give us your idea so we can advance the conversation.”
“We’re more in the business of trying to reduce expenses,” Walker said. “We’re not trying to find new projects to fund.”
The battery storage proposal, from Able Grid Energy Solutions in Colorado, calls for a facility constructed on Blue Valley land, with a transmission line connected to the existing power station. Able Grid, which has numerous battery facilities around the country, would pay an estimated $2 million to $3 million in personal property taxes over the course of the 25-year lease, and its battery storage system would be part of the Southwest Power Pool – the city’s power broker that covers much of the central plains – and would be independent of IPL.
Under its proposal, Titan Fish would raise money to purchase the Blue Valley plant and convert it for biofuel use, and Aemetis, a California-based company which has several biofuel plants around the world, would operate it. Titan Fish said its project would ask for some form of tax incentives. The proposal didn’t say how fuel would get to the site or if the private sector or city would put power onto the grid.
Tilley said his firm, Strategic Capitol Consulting, never lobbied the city, mayor or council members or a representative of it regarding a Blue Valley project.
“SCC was a liaison between Titan Fish Partners LLC and the state of Missouri to identify potential economic development opportunities that may be available for the proposed project,” Tilley said, adding that to eliminate conflict of interest his firm no longer represents Titan Fish “in any capacity.”
Local group’s views
The grassroots citizens group Indy Energy said the Blue Valley repurpose project, like many others, should wait through the current health crisis “to provide sufficient time for careful and thoughtful review by city staff,” though it called the battery storage project “interesting.”
“It requires no city funds and the city would not be financially at risk,” Indy Energy said in a statement. “Batteries are an emerging clean technology and involve no emissions. The project would require a long-term land lease at Blue Valley, providing the city revenue. Also, the private company would pay $2 million or more in personal property tax over a 25-year period.”
“The biofuels proposal is more complicated and appears to involve significant city, county and state subsidies to become a reality. Knowing more details about the biofuel proposal would be helpful to assess the project. Neither project needs or wants to demolish the Blue Valley power plant.”
Walker said there is a “rolling timeline” regarding Blue Valley, but first and foremost is to heed the council’s directive to close the aging plant by June 1 and manage the workforce question “in the most humane and thoughtful way.” The last few weeks before the pandemic included plenty of negotiations, he said, though now the union voting has been disrupted some by the pandemic.
Also, next month Walker said there should be something before the council regarding the IPL outside manager.
“I don’t think any of us are feeling some sense of urgency (on repurposing Blue Valley),” Walker said, adding that no request for proposal is imminent. “That’s well down the list of priorities right now.”