MULLEN – To live in the Nebraska Sandhills is to know its beautiful fragility – and to fight anything that upsets its delicate balance between life and land.
It’s what prompted some 150 ranchers and townsfolk to give up a peaceful summer night last week to assess what wind energy might or might not do, and has already done, to disturb that hard-won balance.
Their peace has been disturbed by two Cherry County wind-energy projects, proposed by some of their own neighbors, and Nebraska Public Power District’s planned Sandhills electrical line that would boost the utility’s power-carrying capacity but also facilitate future wind farms.
Whether they like these plans or not – and most in the room didn’t – the folks who crammed Mullen’s Bullseye community building don’t like the divisions they’ve caused in this region where property rights and community cooperation are equally valued.
“I have friends on both sides of this issue. I intend to maintain those friendships no matter what happens in this deal,” Seneca-area rancher Hyde Kramer told the crowd. But “we can stop their moneymaking scheme.”
Organizers of the two-hour meeting assembled a four-member panel, equally divided between wind-energy backers and skeptics, and made the audience submit questions in writing to prevent angry outbursts.
Those who spoke voiced a belief usually unspoken in rural Nebraska. They need jobs and new residents to stop 80 years of shrinking populations, but they fear too much economic development – especially the environmentally risky kind – could gravely damage the natural, animal and human communities they cherish.
“In very rural areas, economic development is a hard thing to come by,” said panelist Kevin Willert, who lived near wind farms in southwest Minnesota before buying a ranch southwest of Valentine in 2015.
But “what is the tradeoff of more tax dollars vs. what we want to look at out our car window when we drive down the highway?” he added.
The moderators’ opening and closing presentations, highlighted by a MidAmerican Energy video showing construction of an Iowa wind turbine, revealed a deep skepticism about efforts to build 30 turbines near Kilgore and up to 150 turbines in southeast Cherry County near Thedford – not to mention what might come next.
Foes warned of lasting environmental damage from thousands of construction trucks and the impact of hundreds of heavy turbines and high-voltage towers on humans, wildlife and the thin layer of grasslands atop the hills of sand.
Privately-built wind farms have arisen in other parts of the Sandhills, joining a 36-turbine wind farm near Ainsworth that NPPD built itself in 2005 as a pilot project. But opponents cited privately built wind farms in other states that went bankrupt, leaving local residents and governments with unpaid tax bills holding the bag.
When Sandhills Wind Energy LLC President Eric Johnson said Cherry County project backers are responsible for building or restoring private or public roads, one moderator replied: “You know, I just can’t help but ask, because I know other people are thinking this: Do we just take your word on that, or can we see documentation?”
“You don’t really have to take my word on it for Kilgore, because the only public road that will be used is [U.S.] Highway 20,” Johnson answered. The Nebraska Department of Roads already has said the highway will stand up to the added traffic, he said.
The audience’s disdain for the twin energy initiatives was hardly soothed by a recent legal setback for Dan and Barbara Welch, ranchers in both Cherry and Thomas counties, in a lawsuit challenging NPPD’s plan to build its “R Project” line across their property south of Thedford.
Announced in 2013, the R Project would run 225 miles from NPPD’s coal-fired Gerald Gentleman plants near Sutherland to near Clearwater in Holt County. The final route released in early 2015 would carry 345,000 volts of power north and east to U.S. Highway 83 near Stapleton, then follow the highway north to Thedford before turning east.
Construction is on hold pending completion of an environmental impact statement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NPPD Chief Operating Officer Tom Kent told the Telegraph. The utility, which was not represented at the Mullen meeting, rejected an alternate route offered by the agency in 2014.
The Welches didn’t attend the Mullen meeting, either, but Dan Welch told the Telegraph that he’ll do anything he can to protect the land and wildlife to which he returned in the late 1980s. His family’s Sandhills roots date to the 1880s, but his father’s World War II military service meant he was born in Florida and mostly grew up in the South.
“Cherry County, Thomas County, Hooker County, Grant County – they’re some of the most beautiful places in the world,” said Welch, 71, who also spent a few childhood years in south Omaha. But “people who live in the Sandhills know blowouts can start with a shovel.”
Mullen panelist A.D. Cox, who ranches northwest of Mullen, put the opponents’ position most bluntly. “I oppose development of Cherry County for wind energy because it is holistically unsound to prostitute our land, our serenity, our hills and our community and our way of life for a fiscally irresponsible project.”
That’s the last thing Cherry County backers of wind farms want to do, insisted Cherry County Wind LLC President Matt Coble, who ranches northeast of Mullen, and Johnson, who works out of Valentine.
Both men grew up in Cherry County – Coble on his current spread and Johnson in the Cody-Kilgore area – but then received college degrees and worked in Midwest cities before returning since the turn of the millennium.
They joined Cox and Willert in declaring their determination to keep hundreds or thousands of wind turbines from sprouting like invasive weeds. The Cherry County Wind projects, they added, grew from homegrown efforts to control wind development after a multinational energy producer showed interest in the county a few years ago.
Though the producer later backed away, Coble said, enough Cherry County landowners signed leases for county officials to realize they lacked the legal means to say where projects can and cannot be built.
The County Board subsequently amended the county’s zoning regulations, he said. Meanwhile, several dozen landowners organized the Cherry County Wind Energy Association in 2011 after public meetings in Nenzel, Valentine, Mullen and Thedford.
Cherry County Wind LLC, organized a year later, includes some 70 landowners representing 450,000 acres. But only about 1 percent of that area will ever be suitable for wind farms, Coble told the Telegraph.
“A lot of people think we would put towers on every hill in the Sandhills. We wouldn’t even want that,” he said. “There’s particular places that would have the particular types of soil. The last factor is transmission. You have to find the places that can environmentally handle it that are close to the transmission lines.”
The Kilgore and Thedford-area sites are the only ones in the 6,009-square-mile county that fit both conditions, Coble and Johnson said at the Mullen meeting and in subsequent interviews.
Construction at Kilgore could start this winter, they said, while the Thedford-area project isn’t expected to get under way before 2018. But only the latter project lies close enough to the R Project route to link with that line, Coble and Johnson said. The Kilgore project would link to an existing transmission line in northern Cherry County.
If the R Project somehow weren’t built, Coble said, the Thedford-area project would collapse. And he and Johnson said neither wind farm will be built if they can’t build connector electrical lines without landowners’ permission or without doing environmental damage they can’t mitigate.
Both insisted that neither their projects nor any other privately built wind farms enjoy eminent-domain powers. Kent, the NPPD chief operating officer, agreed that private energy developers are blocked by state law from latching onto NPPD’s authority.
As a nonprofit, Kent added, it makes no sense for NPPD to build more turbines itself because federal tax credits are only available to private projects. The utility also is already near its goal of generating 10 percent of its power from renewable sources, he added.
“At the end of the day, NPPD is not looking right now to develop more renewable energy resources,” Kent said.
But he admitted that current NPPD board members cannot prevent future ones from encouraging more wind projects. The utility also might be forced to do so under the federal government’s Clean Power Plan, which imposes stronger nationwide restrictions on coal-based electric generation and favors more renewable-energy sources. The U.S. Supreme Court delayed the federal plan last February.
Questioners and listeners at the Mullen meeting were clearly worked up by the R Project and especially an Aug. 22 court ruling against the Welches. The bend in the “R” would start and run across the southern spread of the Thomas County portion of the couple’s Brush Creek Ranch operation.
That route, Welch said, would take the high-voltage lines directly above the cattle-loading pens on that property. He had a pacemaker installed a few years ago, and doctors have forbidden him to work at those pens if the line goes through, he added.
The Welches, who live at the ranch’s Cherry County headquarters near Brownlee, say NPPD entered their Thomas County land for survey work on April 14 without permission and after breaking a promise made the previous day not to enter without a court order. NPPD denied in court documents that it ever made such a promise.
District Judge Donald Rowlands of North Platte ruled that NPPD had legal authority under state law to do survey work, though he permitted the Welches to seek possible damages for the utility’s operation of vehicles on their pastures. Survey crews are expected to return this week, Welch said.
Kent said NPPD has adjusted the route through some individual properties after landowner input at public hearings and comment periods. But he said the Welches rebuffed all attempts to negotiate before the April confrontations that prompted the lawsuit.
Welch said NPPD’s ears were closed long before they tried to contact him. The utility “will tell you they had meetings,” he said. “We spoke at those meetings, and we were against [the R Project] at those meetings. … Our ideas were not looked at. They had a rehearsed plan.”
The utility has obtained voluntary agreements for most of the easements it needs, Kent added, but it will use eminent domain to secure them if it must. Even if no wind farms were built, he added, NPPD and its ratepayers need the R Project to ensure more reliable availability of power. The nine-state Southwest Power Pool, to which NPPD belongs, would pay most of the line’s $328 million cost.
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