A plan for high-voltage power lines will drive farmers out of business – or provide rural counties with a needed source of revenue, depending on who you ask.
The line, called the Grain Belt Express, would transmit about 3,500 megawatts of electricity along 600 kilovolt lines from wind farms in southwest Kansas east to Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, where it would join with other lines to carry the power farther east, according to developer Clean Line. The company estimates the line and new wind farms supplying it will create about 5,000 construction jobs and 500 long-term operations jobs, and deliver enough power for about 1.4 million homes.
Clean Line has identified three possible routes for the line through northern Kansas. It will have to select a preferred route by June and present it to the Kansas Corporation Commission for approval, though construction won’t start until at least 2016, said Mark Lawlor, director of development for the Grain Belt Express project.
Farmers who live near the line’s proposed routes, however, are skeptical of benefits Clean Line has promised to Kansas and worry additional lines in their area would limit their ability to work their land.
Richard Strathman, who has a $2 million operation raising dairy heifers, said he worries the electricity from the lines will disturb the cows so they won’t lay down when they need to and will cause them to give less milk. One of the proposed routes would cross his main operation and another would cross a smaller piece of his property.
“I’m very concerned how it’s going to affect the (cows’) pregnancies,” he said. “This thing has the potential to put me out of business.”
A review of literature compiled by University of Wisconsin Madison in 2005 found no significant relation between nearby power lines and mortality, milk production or calving among Holstein cows. The studies examined cows near 400 and 500 kilovolt lines.
Some farmers, however, said stray voltage from high-power lines caused their cows to produce less milk and get sick. Two Minnesota dairy farmers sued Northern States Power Company, arguing more than 80 of their cows had died because voltage traveled through the animals’ bodies into the ground.
John Broxterman, who raises beef cattle and grain, said the lines could prevent aerial spraying of pesticides and insecticides, possibly reducing yields.
“It would be quite intrusive on our farm fields, trying to farm around these poles,” he said. “Who’s going to compensate me for any losses?”
Lawlor said direct current lines don’t give off stray voltage like some other types of lines, so neither people nor livestock will be in danger. He acknowledged the lines will affect farm operations, but said they won’t necessarily preclude aerial spraying, and farmers will be paid the fair market value for the property where the towers are placed, with the possibility of ongoing lease payments.
“That’s what the easement payment is for,” he said.
Micah Kee, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat and has pastures for grazing, said Marshall County doesn’t get anything from the plan because Clean Line has a 10-year tax abatement on the line.
The abatement was an important incentive, Lawlor said, but Clean Line plans for the lines to be there more than 10 years, meaning the company will pay a 33 percent property tax on it in the future.
“Long-term, this will benefit the counties in a big way,” he said.
Kee said he is concerned that if one high-voltage line cuts through the area, others may be placed parallel to it, eating away at usable farmland. He also raised concerns farmers’ property would be taken by eminent domain.
“It’s going to be a dozen of those lines side-by-side,” he said. “It’s legalized theft.”
Clean Line does have the right to use eminent domain, Lawlor said, but the goal is to reach an agreement with landowners. Even if it were to use eminent domain to obtain an easement, farmers can still use the land and will be compensated, he said.
“They still own it,” he said.
The farmers started a petition at Change.org arguing Kansas should keep its wind energy within the state instead of selling it across state lines. Gary Ronnebaum, who grows corn, wheat and soybeans, said the group wants to see manufacturers moving to Kansas to take advantage of the wind power.
“They’re exporting our resources and it looks like the state of Kansas is just getting used,” he said.
Lawlor likened selling energy outside the state to exporting wheat and cattle.
“Kansas sits on a tremendous wind resource,” he said. “The potential here is Kansas vastly exceeds what we can use here.”
The farmers’ petition also argued that, if the state decided it was in its best interests to sell the power out of state, that Clean Line should be required to bury its lines and to route them through public rights-of-way.
A study of electric transmission in the European Union found benefits to burying cables, including reduced risk to wildlife from electrocution and less frequent maintenance, but also listed drawbacks, including somewhat higher costs and that in some areas it took five times longer to repair underground cables than overhead lines. The study, however, didn’t include direct current lines transmitting up to 600 kilovolts, so the results might be different for the type of line being discussed in Kansas.
Strathman acknowledged that burying lines costs more, but said other concerns about the lines outweigh the costs.
“When it comes to the health of your family and your livestock, and your livelihood, I don’t care if it costs more,” he said.
Lawlor said lines like the one proposed have never been buried, so it isn’t clear if that could be done. In addition to costing more, buried lines are more prone to overheating, possibly disrupting service, because heat can’t dissipate into the air when the line is underground.
“It’s really not feasible,” he said. “Even if you could do it, it’s not always the best.”
Kee said residents weren’t given a chance to fully air their concerns, including the impact on their property values. There was a two-hour meeting to discuss the project and they got a postcard with a few questions, he said.
“We are the last people to know about it and the people with the least input,” he said. “In reality, nobody is going to want this. I think it really is, who’s squealing the least.”
Vernita Peeks, who retired to Marshall County, said the company should take another route, such as through the Flint Hills or along I-70.
“This area has some of the best farmland in Kansas,” she said.
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