Colorado’s Eastern Plains – from Yuma County cornfields to Prowers County feedlots and the wheat and sorghum fields in Kiowa County – are set to undergo their biggest transformation in more than a century as clean electricity is added to the crops they produce.
There is already a flurry of activity as wind and solar developers – more than a dozen have turned up in Yuma and Kiowa counties – are locking up acreage for prospective projects in leases with ranchers and farmers.
“We’ve had windmills around here for a long time. These are just bigger,” said Jan Kochis, 73, whose family runs a farm and cattle operation in Elbert County, and already has wind turbines on her land, generating royalties.
“It’s our new cash crop. We don’t have to worry about the rain or hail, as long as the wind blows,” Kochis said.
Not everyone is sanguine about what is coming. “Once these big companies come in, we are going to lose control,” said William Harman, 54, who runs a family cattle business and farm in Washington County. “Once you sign a lease you lose control.”
The spur for all this activity is Xcel Energy’s recently approved $1.7 billion Power Pathway transmission project – which will belt eastern Colorado with 560 miles of high-tension transmission lines – an electric highway to Front Range cities and suburbs for new wind and solar installations.
Colorado’s climate goals leads to creation of the Power Pathway
Power Pathway is, in turn, the product of Colorado’s push, embedded in state law, to reduce its emissions of climate-altering greenhouse gasses. The goal for the state is a 50% reduction over 2005 levels by 2030 and a steeper 80% reduction for the utility industry.
The pair of 350-kilovolt transmission lines – looping from Fort Saint Vrain in the north down to rural Kiowa County and then over to Pueblo and up to Aurora – is the backbone of Xcel Energy’s plan to develop clean electricity generation and meet state mandates.
“Over the next 10 years the electric grid in Colorado is going to be transitioning from thermal fossil fuel plants to largely wind and solar,” Colorado Public Utilities Commissioner John Gavan said at a recent session on climate change. “We are going to be slathering the Eastern Plains with wind and solar.”
For the communities on the plains, Power Pathway will spark one of the biggest changes since 1909 when the Enlarged Homestead Act doubled the permitted homestead to 320 acres in an effort to promote nonirrigated or dryland farming.
“We live out here, we own this land and all of sudden these companies are coming in saying we are going to do this and we are going to do that, without us having much say, particularly on transmission,” said Monte Willeke, 69, who farms wheat, hay and millet for livestock in Washington County. “The money is all right. It is the longevity that bothers me and having to look at those transmission lines and wind mills forever.”
But Tom Jackson, who raises corn outside the town of Joes, in Yuma County, said, “maybe 60% of the people are OK with it, either way everybody realizes it’s coming.”
For Xcel Energy, the state’s largest electricity provider, the project is all about chickens and eggs and fields of dreams.
Since 2007, Xcel Energy has retired 900 megawatts of coal-fired power plants – the main source of its greenhouse gases – with another 1,410 MW slated to be closed by the end of 2030.
To help fill the gap and provide for growth, Xcel Energy wants to add 2,300 MW of solar generation, 1,600 MW of new wind farms and 400 MW of storage – much of it through independent wind and solar developers selling electricity to the utility.
There is a catch. Usually, generation projects are built first and then transmission is added to link the plant to the grid, but Xcel Energy is seeking to develop so many new projects and at such a quick tempo, in an effort to capture expiring federal tax credits, that without assured transmission it won’t get done.
At stake is as much as $850 million in tax credits, provided projects are up and running by the end of 2025. Whatever part of the cost isn’t covered by the credits may have to be paid by Xcel Energy customers.
Building the Power Pathway even before there are any solar fields or wind farms is, Xcel Energy executives said in PUC testimony, a way to avoid the “chicken-and-egg dilemma.”
“For clean energy resources and emission reductions in Colorado, the Pathway Project through the Eastern Plains is the ‘Field of Dreams,’” Alice Jackson, then-CEO of Xcel’s Colorado subsidiary, said in testimony last year.
Build it and they will come – and coming they are. Engie North America, a subsidiary of a French multinational corporation, is looking to build a wind farm in Yuma County and Enel Green Power, an Italian energy company, is working on a wind project in Elbert County.
“It’s a big land rush. Everyone is jockeying to get into position,” said R.J. Jolly, a Cheyenne County commissioner and farmer, who has signed a wind lease agreement with Enel. “There is a lot of money on the table.”
Some of the best natural wind resources in the country
To be sure, the plains are no stranger to renewable generation. They are already home to 237 MW of solar installations and more than 2,200 wind turbines in 38 wind farms, across 11 counties, with 4,800 MW of generating capacity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The Eastern Plains have some of the best natural wind resources in the county, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and in 2020, wind turbines produced 23% of Colorado’s electricity.
But while those facilities were built over the last 18 years, Power Pathway and Xcel’s $8 billion Clean Energy Plan envisions adding almost as much capacity in the next five or six years.
“The Power Pathway Project is virtually unprecedented in scope and cost in Colorado history,” the PUC said in its decision approving the project.
When the Rush Creek Wind Project, the state’s largest wind farm, was built in 2018 – across 95,000 acres in Lincoln, Kit Carson, Cheyenne and Elbert counties – a legion of construction workers, trucks and heavy machinery flooded the region.
“We are a small rural county, all of a sudden you have a thousand workers show-up,” Jolly said. “There is no place to stay, the hotels are full, the RV parks are full, some guys are commuting 70 miles from Colorado Springs. It really takes a toll on your emergency services, the police and fire.”
In Limon, a rented bedroom went for $1,700 a month and local residents in Burlington, for a fee, were taking in workers’ wash because the laundromat was closed on Sunday, a NREL impact study reported.
“It can be chaotic and feel messy, but when you are done you have a new level of economic activity would wouldn’t have had without the boom,” said Greg Brophy, a former state senator, Yuma County farmer and state director for The Western Way, which bills itself as “conservative stewards of the Western environment.”
From 2000 to 2024, even without Power Pathway, renewable energy industries will have spent an estimated $9.4 billion in construction and investment activity on the Eastern Plains and in 2024 – based on existing and approved facilities – wind farms will provide $15.2 million in lease payments to landowners, and pay $23.1 million in property taxes, according to a Western Way analysis.
What’s this mean for the 13 counties along the route?
Now, to a lesser or greater degree, the Rush Creek story may be repeated across the 13 counties Power Pathway will affect and county governments, ranchers and farmers are bracing for change.
To understand the potential impacts – for plains residents and Xcel Energy customers as well – a journey along the Power Pathway’s route is revealing.
The project will be built in five segments. The precise route still isn’t set as Xcel Energy tries to trace the Power Pathway of least resistance among landowners and local governments.
Xcel Energy estimates it will have to negotiate with as many as 700 landowners and pay $123 million for land rights and related activities.
“We are working with landowners, talking with counties … trying to find the route that is least impactful to the community,” Hollie Velasquez Horvath, Xcel’s regional vice president for state affairs and community relations.
The company does have “backstop authority” to take a right-of-way by eminent domain, a power it has never used.
“Using a backstop isn’t creating a good partnership and creating a relationship for the future,” Velasquez Horvath said. “We are going to be there for the long haul.”
The first leg of the line – Segment 1 – will run 75 miles from the Fort St. Vrain substation, an existing link to the electric grid, to the Pawnee substation in Morgan County. The county is already seeing solar power development as Denver-based Pivot Energy is building five solar arrays.
Morgan County has a moratorium, set to expire in July, on any new wind or solar projects while it updates ordinances. “We saw that our regulations were behind the times,” said Jon Becker, a Morgan County commissioner. “We didn’t deal with battery storage and we felt that was going to come with any renewable energy project.”
“We have some small-scale solar, but we are expecting larger projects,” he said, “800 to 3,000 acres wouldn’t be a surprise.”
Pivot Energy agrees. “Eastern Plains counties have ideal topography to support large-scale solar development,” Jon Fitzpatrick, Pivot senior vice president for project development, said in an email. “The use of this land for solar is also economically favorable.”
Solar is fine, but Becker questions whether it will fill the bill. “It is a nice addition to the county, but at the same time we have environmentalists running out the largest taxpayer in the county,” he said. Xcel Energy’s plans call for closing part of the coal-fired Pawnee Generation Station and converting part to natural gas.
“Coal has been a great partner in this county,” Becker said. “Solar and wind are nice, but by no means do they pay the taxes or create the employment of a coal-fired power plant. Xcel says that operations may be similar, but until we see it, we are cautious.”
From the Pawnee substation Power Pathway swings east and south for 160 miles – in Segment 2 – through Washington, Yuma, Kit Carson and Cheyenne counties. Segment 2 is a key section for developing wind and solar projects and is slated to go into service in 2025.
In Washington County the line may run by the Harman Cattle Co. Harmans have lived on this land since 1904 and today five Harman families have farming and livestock operations on their 12,000 acres.
“We are good farmers. We live off the land,” Harman said. “People ought to pay attention to the land, not royalties.”
The concern is that a forest of wind turbines – with their blinking red lights all night, a warning for aircraft – will irrevocably alter a landscape of dappled prairie dotted with black cattle that sweeps to the horizon in every direction, capped by a sky working the cool end of the color pallet in shades of baby blue to slate.
“Our open spaces do need to be preserved,” Harman said. “The night sky is beautiful. That is something I’d miss.”
Harman’s wife, Kim, 53, tells the story of a night sky – thick with stars, the Milky Way clear and vivid – that brought tears to the eyes of a Japanese 4-H exchange student.
In addition to the blinking lights and broken landscape, there are concerns about noise from the turbine blades and “shadow flicker” that the turning blades can cast on nearby homes at certain times of the day.
Washington County imposed a moratorium on wind projects in 2020, while it worked on an ordinance, which was adopted last fall. “We’ve the regulations in place to handle applications,” Commissioner Kent Vance said. “We haven’t seen any projects yet … We’ve heard of leasing of land.”
Up the road from the Harmans, Willeke is part of a group trying to organize farmers and other landowners to negotiate the Power Pathway right-of-way with Xcel Energy. This effort is based on a similar group negotiation three years ago when an oil pipeline project came through.
“The problem is they keep changing the route,” Willeke said. He suspects the utility seeks the most compliant landowners.
“I am not against landowners putting a tower on their property or a transmission line, I am more concerned about making sure the property owner is compensated,” he said.
Race for credits
The haste to get everything done – the transmission lines, the wind farms and solar arrays – is being fueled by the race to get the federal tax credits, Willeke said. “The federal government created this.”
To get the credits – which are calculated based on the amount of electricity a wind farm or solar array generates – an installation has to be in operation by the end of 2025.
For 1,000 MW of new wind resources the tax credit is worth $300 million and for 1,000 MW of solar it comes to about $100 million, according to an Xcel Energy PUC filing.
Xcel Energy is proposing 3,900 MW of new wind and solar in its electric resource and clean energy plans now pending before the PUC. That adds up to a potential $850 million in federal credits.
And while the PUC has approved the Power Pathway project, it still hasn’t ruled on Xcel Energy’s plans for new generation or its clean energy plan, which aims to cut carbon emissions by 87% by 2030.
In its approval of Power Pathway, the commission established a sliding scale of penalties and bonuses for cost overruns or coming in under budget, as well as completing or not completing sections on time.
If Xcel Energy doesn’t complete Segments 2 and 3 – both key to a wind and solar built-out – by the end of 2025, it could face a $10 million penalty. The commission, however, rejected a proposal from the state Utility Consumer Advocate for a budget cap on the entire project.
Oil and gas landmen now are scouting wind, solar
Meanwhile, Power Pathway moves forward and the land rush is on for projects.
Yuma County, cheek and jowl with Nebraska, has been Colorado’s top corn producer, but it also has been far off the wind and solar development radar. Not anymore.
“There are close to a half dozen companies obtaining leases that we are aware of,” Andrea Calhoon, the county administrator, said in an email. “We are anticipating a fair amount of conversation over the next couple of years in response to the Power Pathway project.”
For Greg Hill, 49, the lease offer by Engie first came in a packet in the mail. Then there was a follow-up with a company representative, Dan Timmer, who used to be a landman, acquiring mineral rights for oil and gas operators.
The Hill family came to the region in the late 1800s and they own 15 eastern Yuma County quarter sections, in conservation easements, pasture, dryland farming and irrigated farming. (The invention of center-pivot irrigation in Strasburg in 1948 was the last big innovation on the plains, though it impacts only a fraction of land in Colorado.)
Hill leased every acre he could for wind turbines. “If global warming is real, and it is, we need to address it,” he said. “I am a little nervous about having a giant company come in and do this, but I will be excited to see those turbines go up.”
There is more than altruism at work. Engie estimated that each turbine would generate up to $14,700 in annual royalties during the first 20 years of operation, according to Hill’s leasing documents.
Engie confirmed that it is developing a project in Yuma County, but declined further comment.
In Phillips County, Yuma’s neighbor to the north, National Renewable Solutions has put up meteorological towers as a prelude to a wind project that will also straddle Logan and Sedgewick counties, according to Laura Schroetlin, the Phillips County administrator-planner.
Minnetonka, Minn.-based National Renewable Solutions, part of the multinational investment corporation BlackRock Inc., did not reply to repeated telephone requests by the Sun for comment.
Both Phillips County and neighboring Logan County have moratoriums on wind and solar development while they work on new ordinances, but Schroetlin said that the coming of renewable energy still seems far off. “We get more stirred up by confined feedlots,” she said.
From Yuma County, Power Pathway plunges south – through rolling prairie, furrowed with arroyos and fringed with clusters of cottonwood trees gathered at dry gullies waiting for a drink – to Kit Carson County, already home to five wind farms.
Segment 2 will end at a new Goose Creek substation in Cheyenne County, where the next leg – Segment 3 – will run 65 miles south through Cheyenne and Kiowa counties.
Unlike the counties up north, Kit Carson and Cheyenne have had years of experience with wind farms. Cheyenne is home to Xcel Energy’s 500-MW Cheyenne Ridge Wind Project and parts of Rush Creek. The county has had land use ordinances regulating wind farms for more than a decade and they have periodically been updated, Jolly said.
“Some people are interested in having them [turbines], some aren’t,” Jolly said. “We have a wind lease on our place and I have mixed emotions about it. It has a much bigger impact on the land than oil and gas.”
“But it is what it is, you can’t lock the gate,” Jolly said. “We’ll have to learn to live with it.”
Some Cheyenne and Kiowa county farmers have banded together and hired a lawyer to negotiate wind leases for them.
A group of about a dozen Cheyenne County farmers, representing some 36,000 acres, got a uniform wind lease. “The feeling was if we got a big enough block together, we could get these companies to pay a fairer rate,” said Matt Campbell, 42, who grew on his family farm in the county.
And as in Yuma County, the group found itself dealing with former oil and gas landmen. “We call them lease hounds,” Campbell said. A similar group of landowners has banded together negotiate leases in Kiowa County.
Kiowa County, like Yuma, has not yet seen any wind or solar development, but at least half a dozen prospective developers have already stopped by the county building, according to Tina Adamson, the county administrator.
Perhaps the biggest dispute yet for Power Pathways came along Segment 3 in Kiowa County as the Sand Creek Memorial Foundation, and the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, objected to one potential route they said would compromise the view at the memorial commemorating the 1864 massacre of 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho by Colorado volunteer soldiers.
They said the high-tension line would violate the spirit of legislation that called for preserving the original landscape.
Xcel Energy agreed to move the line 10 miles from the memorial, but the idea of preserving a 10-mile viewshed buffer raised the dander of local farmers and landowners, who felt they hadn’t gotten a say and were concerned that such a large buffer around the memorial would stifle development and take some landowners out of the wind farm game.
“It’s the way they went about it. Xcel wasn’t very transparent,” said Burl Scherler, 71, who raises winter wheat and sorghum, and in good years corn and sunflowers on 20,000 acres in Kiowa County – though due to the challenges of dryland farming rarely is all the acreage in cultivation.
“The governor wants renewable energy, it has value to the country, but the state has to realize we are out here and to treat us fairly,” said Scherler, who has farmed his land for 50 years. “We want to have a fair shake.”
Scherler said that it now looks that the Power Pathway will cut across 2 miles of his land. He has signed an agreement with Xcel Energy allowing it to do surveys and geological, archaeological and biological studies. “We’ve got people sitting on the side of the road counting birds.”
One bird in particular – the lesser prairie-chicken – could end up being an even bigger challenge for Xcel Energy than the Sand Creek Memorial, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing the bird as an endangered species.
That designation would impact Segments 3 and 4. “Habitat conservation costs could be as high as $3.5 million per line mile, and could increase total costs for these segments by up to $180 million,” according to a PUC filing.
Sheridan Lake – home to 89 people, a gas station and the Hawk’s Nest Convenience Store – is the lone town in the area and its Plainview Elementary School has 30 pupils. “Out here the key is to maintain critical mass,” Scherler said. “If you don’t, the next thing you know your kids have to go 50 miles to school or to Kansas.”
The coming of Power Pathway and all it promises could help maintain critical mass. “Thirty new jobs may not sound like much, but to us it is huge,” Scherler said.
Just west of Sheridan Lake, Xcel Energy will build its new May Valley substation. The PUC also gave the utility conditional approval for an additional $250 million, 90-mile spur running from May Valley to the Twin Butte’s area in Baca County, home to some of the best wind and solar resources in the state – and the lesser prairie-chicken.
From May Valley the Power Pathway will head due west 140 miles in Segment 4 through Kiowa, Lincoln, Crowley and Pueblo counties.
Math on lease agreements pencils out. The map is a different matter.
No county has felt the impact of wind development more than Lincoln County. The first wind farm, Cedar Point, went up in 2011, followed by three more plus a section of the Rush Creek project.
The county is now home to 525 wind turbines and in 2021 the five wind farms paid $2.4 million in taxes to the county and area school districts, according to county assessor records.
“Ag and cattle account for more than $25 million in sales, so agriculture remains king,” said Troy McCue, executive director of the Lincoln County Economic Development Corp. “Still, this has been a good way to diversify our economy.”
“It has not been difficult to integrate wind economically,” McCue said. “The wind blows so hard on the Eastern Plains it is good now that someone is getting some use out of that.”
Segment 4 ends at the Xcel Energy’s Tundra substation, just northeast of Pueblo. Power Pathway turns north here for the last leg of its journey – Segment 5 – 120 miles through Pueblo, El Paso, Elbert and Arapahoe counties ending at the Harvest Mile substation outside of Aurora.
One route that was in play ran right next to the Book family’s calving barn – the heart of the cow and calf operation the family runs. The Books were not happy.
“It would have been a tremendous disturbance and the line was only going to be a quarter of a mile from the house,” Penny Book, 73, said.
Jesse Book, a grandfather of her husband, Lansing, purchased the land, near the El Paso County crossroads community of Rush, for taxes in the early 1930s. The operation now covers 5,000 acres.
The homestead house – renovated – is now home to the Books’ son Robert, 46, and his wife and two children, the fifth generation on the land.
Book Land & Cattle is now owned by Robert, who splits his time between a job as a financial adviser in Colorado Springs and running, with his parents’ help, the family cow-calf operation.
In its ongoing jockeying to find the right route, Xcel Energy has moved the proposed line about 3 miles from the Book ranch. Still, Penny Book worries about “what comes next – the wind farms.”
“People think there is a lot of nothing out here, but that’s what I love,” she said.
Some 28 miles north of the Books, Andrew Kochis, a Czech immigrant, had taken advantage of the 1909 Enlarge Homestead Act and in 1916 moved to a 320-acre plot near Matheson.
Today, Kochis Farms covers 10,000 acres and is home to corn and wheat fields, 200 head of beef cattle and 30 Rush Creek wind turbines, as well as an Xcel Energy substation, and Jan Kochis is fine with it all.
“There is no problem farming around the turbines,” Kochis said. “The cows like to go right up the base for the shade.”
“In some of our fields we have some pretty nice roads now,” she said “When they built the roads, they compensated us for taking land out of production, same for land taken out of production during construction.”
And then there are the royalties from their lawyer-negotiated lease agreement. The Kochis family gets an annual payment on their fraction of the overall Rush Creek Project that comes to $6,000 to $8,000 for each turbine.
“You’ve got no expenses and the money is really nice when you’ve had a dry year,” she said.
What about the blinking red lights at night? “I don’t look,” Kochis said. And the noise of the blades? “You walk out on a quiet morning and hear this calming swish, swish, swish.”
Moving north, the Power Pathway begins to meet exurban development pushing east from Colorado Springs, Castle Rock and Parker. “Due to its proximity to growing municipal areas in the state … Segment 5 presents routing challenges not common in other segments,” the utility said in a PUC filing.
One of those challenges is the Elbert County Environmental Alliance, a recently formed homeowners’ group, seeking to simultaneously protect the environment and property values – especially in the Bijoux Basin.
“The lines would run right through the basin, which is pristine and rich in wildfire life,” said Robert Poletiek, an alliance board member and 26-year resident of the area.
The depression in the plains offered shelter not only to nesting eagles but to Comanche tribes, Poletiek said. “Keep your eyes down and you still find imprints of tipi circles and arrowheads.”
This is where the Eastern Plains sprawling ranches begin to break-up. First into 60-acre parcels, like the one upon which Poletiek lives, and then moving closer to Interstate 25 into suburban subdivisions.
“It isn’t only the line, it’s the knock-on effect of all the development, the wind and solar,” Poletiek said. Enel Green Power is already developing the Bijou Hills Wind Project on 20,000 acres east of the basin.
Alliance members have shown-up at Xcel Energy’s open houses, placards in hand, and spoken at every Elbert County Commission meeting.
“We’ve gotten a good reception at the commission and from Xcel,” Poletiek said. Xcel representatives, he said, have indicated that they may consider a path to the east of the basin.
“Segment 5 was always going to be the hardest,” Poletiek said, but without it, the complete circuit – which enables electricity to be sent in either direction and helps ensure reliability —cannot be closed.
“We realize Segment 5 has to be built somewhere,” Poletiek said.
Colorado isn’t alone in pressing for building more transmission and renewable generation. Among the projects under development in the West are SunZia Southwest Transmission covering 520 miles between Arizona and New Mexico, Greenlink West running 423 miles through Nevada and the Cross-Tie Transmission project, a 214-mile line between Nevada and Utah.
Building transmission is often controversial. A proposed 145-mile line to bring hydropower to Massachusetts from Quebec was blocked by voters in Maine, and the Missouri legislature, in response to the Grain Belt Express – a 800-mile line designed to bring Kansas wind power to Illinois and Indiana – passed a bill giving counties and landowners a stronger hand dealing with the developer.
“Building transmission is extremely difficult,” Gavan, the PUC commissioner, said. “You only have to look across the country at other failed projects that have inhibited other jurisdictions from hitting their targets to see how risky it is.”
One key advantage Colorado has is “being able to go it alone,” said Charles Teplin, a manager in the electricity practice at consultant RMI.
“We have wonderful resources of wind and solar,” Teplin said. “The folks on the Eastern Plains can benefit from the economics of exporting what they have and the urban core benefits with clean energy. We don’t have to go through another state, we don’t have to deal with another jurisdiction.”
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