COWGILL, Mo. – Up and down the center of the country, winds rip across plains, ridges and plateaus, a belt of unharnessed energy capable of powering millions of customers, with enormous potential to help meet national goals to stem climate change.
And because the bulk of the demand is hundreds of miles away, companies are working to build a robust network of high-voltage transmission lines to get the power to the coasts.
If only it were that simple. In all, more than 3,100 miles of projects have yet to be built, in need of government approval.
One of the most ambitious projects, called the Grain Belt Express from a company called Clean Line Energy Partners, spent six years winning the go-ahead in three of the Midwestern states it would cross, only to hit a dead end in Missouri when state regulators voted 3 to 2 to stop the project. They were swayed by landowners like Jennifer Gatrel, who runs a midsize family cattle operation with her husband, Jeff, here in the northwestern part of the state.
She and other opponents made the usual arguments against trampling property rights through the use of eminent domain, obliterating their pastoral views and disrupting their way of life.
But they also argued something else: Why should they have to live beneath the high-voltage lines when there is plenty of wind in the East?
Now the whole project is waiting, putting the Gatrels in the middle of an emerging battle over how the nation should shift to renewable energy and meet ambitious targets in carbon reduction. The outcome will determine where and how green energy will develop over the coming decades.
“We have this potential for high-quality renewables in real volume for the first time,” said James J. Hoecker, a former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission who now advises the transmission industry. “The problem is, where the best renewables are, there are few customers.”
The transmission lines like Grain Belt Express, he said, would bring the electricity to where there is demand.
The push to enhance the grid has gained urgency as renewables have spread. Already, electric systems in areas like Hawaii and Germany are under strain as wind and solar power fluctuate and overload the wires. What is needed, proponents say, is a new infrastructure better suited to handle renewable energy.
Energy Department officials acknowledge as much, saying that the United States must significantly upgrade its transmission and distribution system to meet both the needs of the information economy and clean energy goals, an effort that would require an estimated $900 billion in investment by 2030.
A recent study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado, Boulder, found that with such a network, the United States could supply most of its electricity with renewables by then at costs near today’s prices and get close to meeting the goals set in the Paris agreement on climate change.
But opponents like Ms. Gatrel say that giant projects like the Grain Belt Express represent an outmoded, centralized approach to delivering energy. Just as it is healthier and more sustainable to eat foods close to where they are grown, the argument goes, so, too, should electricity be consumed closer to where it is produced.
“We believe that the East Coast has access to abundant offshore wind and that any time you talk about green or clean, you should also be talking about local,” she said. “Unnecessary long-haul transmission lines are not our country’s future.”
It isn’t just here in northwestern Missouri that construction of new power lines has met resistance, and transmission projects can live or die at the hands of state and county officials representing the local interest.
Clean Line has five projects in the works, including one that failed to gain approval in Iowa and another that ran aground in Arkansas and is awaiting federal approval under a thus-far unused provision of the 2005 Energy Policy Act. TransWest Express, a connector that the billionaire Philip Anschutz is proposing to install from the enormous wind farm he is developing on his south-central Wyoming cattle ranch to Las Vegas, is also awaiting a federal go-ahead.
But some energy officials and executives say there is a more dynamic and resilient alternative to these sprawling networks. Instead, they are promoting the development of less centralized systems that link smaller power installations, including rooftop solar, storage and electric vehicles, an approach known as distributed generation.
Conflict over those competing visions has cropped up across the country in fights over both wind and solar developments, but nowhere is that conflict starker than in Missouri’s rejection of Grain Belt.
The transmission line, which could create thousands of temporary manufacturing and construction jobs in the state, attracted strong support among some economic development officials and landowners. They saw it as a chance to bring needed revenue to local counties and school districts, as well as to provide extra income for those whose land it crosses.
“I’m wanting to make sure that my local district has the assets to be able to do what they need to do,” said Wayne Wilcox, 68, who runs a farm that has been in his family since 1884 and is a commissioner in Randolph County. “I just believe a project like this brings a lot of good to a community.”
But opponents flooded the state Public Service Commission with thousands of comments against the proposal. Among the objections was granting Clean Line eminent domain so it could profit from shipping electricity to energy-hungry regions that command higher power prices. In addition, opponents say that the lines can interrupt farming operations, pierce the country quiet with humming or popping sounds and pollute the nights with a glow.
And although the lines are said to be safe, farmers are warned not to refuel vehicles underneath them, or if refueling is necessary, to ground equipment with heavy chains.
Michael Skelly, Clean Line’s president and founder, said that the lines would not glow, but acknowledged that most landowners wouldn’t be eager to have the towers, which could rise 150 feet, on their properties. He also said that the exceptional winds of the Great Plains could go a long way toward reducing the country’s carbon emissions, and that the company would compensate landowners for their sacrifice. And since there is no comprehensive, national transmission-building program, he said, it was up to private companies to devise business models to handle it.
“The difficult thing is that with infrastructure of any type, it has to go somewhere,” he said, adding, “To motivate investors, there has to be a possibility that they make money – otherwise, it’s not going to happen.”
The state’s five-member Public Service Commission, which rejected the proposal by one vote, concluded that its priority was Missouri, and “that any actual benefits to the general public from the project are outweighed by the burdens on affected landowners.”
One of the dissenting commissioners, Daniel Y. Hall, who is now the chairman, wrote that the majority had used an “overly narrow and parochial interpretation of the public interest” that put the state “on the wrong side of history.”
That debate is far from over. Clean Line plans to reapply, Mr. Skelly said, and Ms. Gatrel and her neighbors have vowed to continue their fight.
Last month, she stood on a windswept hill at her home, just below a flock of chickens and ducks pecking near a cold frame holding the last of a crop of lettuce. Her son, Dalton, ran a pony around a ring while her husband, who like his wife is 35 years old, worked cattle on horseback in a nearby pasture.
“I love this life,” she said. “I love this land.”
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