BURWELL – On the surface, the use of the wind energy to generate electricity and protecting Nebraska’s Sandhills – and the environment – seem compatible.
But in the north-central part of the state, the two are currently at odds.
It is there that the state’s largest electric utility, Nebraska Public Power District, is aiming to build a new 345,000-volt, 220-mile transmission line to increase reliability and make way for future growth.
A group of citizens called Save the Sandhills, however, has formed against them.
One member, Skylar Loeffler, said they have concerns ranging from the effects of the overhead lines on their homes and businesses to the ramifications for that fragile ecosystem.
And as both entities move into a new phase of the project, the stage is set.
“We can’t all just go, ‘Well, they’re gonna do it anyway,’” Loeffler said. “If we think it’s wrong, we need to stand up.”
According to NPPD’s website, the plan – called the R-Project – would build a line from the Gerald Gentleman Station near Sutherland north to a new substation in or near Cherry County and then east to a new substation built in Holt, Antelope or Wheeler counties. It would then tie into a line owned by the Western Area Power Administration.
The project would cost an estimated $313 million, with NPPD expected to contribute about 7 percent. Construction is slated to begin in summer 2016 and service to begin in 2018.
Developing that route has been a process, said Terry Warth, NPPD manager of advocacy group relations.
First, NPPD started with studies. After getting input from landowners and other groups, he said, they made adjustments. Recently, they held six open houses around the region to both hear feedback and share information.
Even so, he said, the route has not been decided.
And that’s where the Save the Sandhills group is hoping to step in.
The group, which met in Burwell, formed a couple of months ago, said member Dave Hutchinson, a longtime organic buffalo and beef rancher in Rose. It started with a grassroots effort, with those affected simply calling up neighbors and spreading the word.
Now, Loeffler said, there are about 150 members from all over the region.
Many, she said, are like her. She had never given much thought to where her electricity came from before this project, but she decided to get educated when she saw that both the preferred and alternative routes proposed pass by her and her husband’s cow/calf operation in Garfield County.
“I’m like most people. I can appreciate walking over and flipping the switch,” she said. “But then I decided I needed to investigate what the effects were, not only to me as a landowner, but to Nebraska as a whole.”
Others, like Robert Bernt, who owns a dairy operation in south Wheeler County, won’t be directly affected by the line – he just cares about what happens to his neighbors.
One concern, he said, is the effect of electrical current in the area.
He said he experienced something similar a few years ago, losing 27 head of cows to a low voltage problem. Loeffler added that some members are concerned about the voltage affecting their corn yield. She also said that while NPPD has offered to ground fences and pipes in the area, many in the group worry about the risks.
The issues with animals and crops, Bernt said, often take at least three years to turn up, and he said NPPD isn’t taking that into account.
But the focus, he said, is the irreplaceable ecosystem.
“We’re not protestors,” he said. “We’re protectors.”
Bernt said one threat is to the prairie chickens, which are becoming increasingly rare. They fly in clusters at the exact height of the proposed line, he said.
The other concern, of course, is the Sandhills themselves.
Ranchers, Hutchinson said, have preserved the area for years, and with few roads, the large machinery the power district will bring in will do irreversible damage.
“This is basically a big preserve taking care of the land by the people who know (the Sandhills) best,” he said.
Even when the power district is gone, Loeffler said, the damage will remain. “Once this stuff is harmed, you’re going to be a lifetime trying to heal it up,” she said.
Members have attended all of the recent open houses on the issue, Bernt said, and now they’re ready to regroup. Save the Sandhills members hope to get more support moving forward.
But mostly, Loeffler said, they hope NPPD will consider another route or use existing lines to complete the project.
“They have viable alternatives to the north and to the south, and they do not have to blaze a virgin path across the center of the Sandhills,” she said.
Warth, however, said it’s not that simple.
As use of electronic devices rises, the demand on the system increases, and more lines are needed. Additionally, he said, this route in particular is key in ensuring reliable service for the growing base of customers.
Most of the lines from Gentleman’s Station, he said, head east. With the storms the state has experienced in recent years, however, that isn’t wise. This new line, he said, will give NPPD and its customers a path outside of the storm-ridden area to rely on. Using existing lines wouldn’t fix that problem, he said.
“It minimizes your risk of if we did have a problem in that area, we have another way to deliver power to that area,” he said.
Finally, he said, it makes room for what’s ahead with wind generation.
“If you’re going to develop wind generation in that area, you need transmission lines to take that power that is generated by the wind to where the load is,” he said.
Adding this line, he said, adds to the ability to carry energy not only across Nebraska, but across the region.
But the importance of the line, Warth said, does not undermine the importance of the ecosystem to NPPD.
They have consulted outside experts, he said, and on this project, they plan to incorporate new technology, such as helical foundations that screw in as opposed to poured concrete, to minimize damage.
For the members of Save the Sandhills, that might not be enough. Still, they hope to have the opportunity to work further with NPPD toward a solution, Bernt said.
Warth said he expects the next phase, a public hearing, will probably not take place until late this year. In the meantime, he said, he hopes for the same thing.
“We’re really going through this process to work with the landowners and organizations and groups to minimize the impact …,” he said.
“We’re a long ways away from knowing where this line is going to be placed.”
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