When plans to build North Dakota's largest transmission line in three decades were unveiled, it seemed as though the political, legal and economic stars were in alignment. Minnesota's legislators wanted more renewable power, North Dakota farmers looked forward to the extra income, and environmental groups championed the line for carrying "green power" and cutting reliance on coal.
A 345-kilowatt, 270-mile-long transmission line in North Dakota has been in the planning stages since 2009. Minnkota Power Cooperative, the energy co-op behind it, released four potential routes to the public this past December. Because the study areas included private land, much of which is owned by farmers, it was felt there might be some objections.
Often referred to as the "Saudi Arabia of wind," North Dakota has a big stake in the nation's wind power development. So do the farmers and landowners whose property the turbines go on. Some are getting easement payments that add up to $10,000 a year, explained Chad Weckerly, a grain, wheat, corn and soybean farmer, and many of those payments increase 2 percent each year.
So far, though, backers of the proposed transmission line have been on a learning curve, running into a snarl of reasons showing that very little is easy about being green.
In the past few months, Weckerly has held four meetings across the state for landowners to voice their concerns. One of Weckerly's main issues is a loss of wind rights. He said the transmission line would take up too much space to allow landowners to lease their property to wind developers in the future.
"Generally, one wind turbine to another turbine is a 2,000-foot distance," said Weckerly, who sits on the board of the North Dakota Farm Bureau. "So if you're the lucky landowner that gets the transmission line on your property, it's not possible to get wind turbines on your land."
One-time payments are not enough
Minnkota has offered some landowners a one-time payment of $37,000 a mile for the new transmission line, Weckerly said. But the key here is one time. "The landowners are very much feeling that they should have annual payments," he said.
It's not that Weckerly or the state Farm Bureau oppose the project.
"We're not going to stand in the way of projects like this," said Jeff Missling, the organization's state executive director. "The biggest thing is making sure our landowners receive just compensations."
The $280 million transmission line, which will start outside of Center, N.D., and run east to Grand Forks, crosses 12 counties and is meant to replace the coal power load from an existing line that extends to Duluth, Minn., near Lake Superior.
That existing line, which transmits power from a coal-fired power plant in central North Dakota, was sold to electricity provider Minnesota Power in December 2009. Right now, Minnesota and North Dakota split the coal-generated energy from the Milton R. Young power station's Unit 2, located near Center, N.D., otherwise known as Young 2, with each state getting half.
Minnesota Power wants to add the existing transmission line with North Dakota wind power to its transmission system in order to meet Minnesota's renewable portfolio standard. The state mandates that 25 percent of Minnesota's energy be renewable by 2025.
The new Minnkota transmission line seeks to phase out all of Minnesota's dependence on the coal-fired Young 2 plant by 2024.
But another factor prompting the new line is North Dakota's increasing energy demand. In 2009, Minnkota forecast that its load will increase by nearly 2 percent every year for the next 25 years. This demand would otherwise prompt construction of a new coal-fired plant, Minnkota contends, but the new transmission line makes this unnecessary.
The current line shared by Minnkota and Minnesota Power carries a direct current, meaning the flow of power can be controlled at any time. Since the power is generated in North Dakota, all of it follows a path to Minnesota. The new line would have an alternating current, meaning all of the power has to travel the path of least resistance. This new advantage, coupled with North Dakota's eventually receiving all of the Young 2 coal power, is what makes a new coal plant unneeded.
Interference with precision-guided tractors?
Mike Hennes, chairman of the Minnkota project, said North Dakota needs the transmission line to continue developing the wind industry. "Another transmission line provides another alternative, possibly," Hennes said. "It generally helps the capability of the existing transmission system."
Every wind farm has to deal with a transmission line, he said, and the best solution is to optimize its location. "I don't know how to demonstrate that a transmission line interferes with wind development," Hennes said.
But farmers have their own concerns to demonstrate. One is the possibility that the new power line will interfere with the links to the Global Positioning System satellites they need. The GPS locations tell them exactly where to plant seeds and apply fertilizer. Weckerly said obstruction from the transmission line could drop the number of satellite links his equipment relies on from eight or nine to four. That's more than enough to throw off the accuracy of his operation, he said.
John Shockley, a West Fargo, N.D.-based attorney representing the group of landowners, said that farming operations have gotten much larger in the past few decades.
"Power lines will interfere with them more than they did even 20 years ago," Shockley said. "We're concerned how [the line] will affect precision farm equipment."
Shockley estimates the Minnkota line will affect somewhere between 200 and 400 landowners. He couldn't say how many of them he's representing -- the number changes every day -- but Weckerly suspects it's near 100. About a third of the affected landowners have signed easements with Minnkota, Weckerly said.
A shock to migratory birds?
Wary that the transmission line could lower their property values, many of the landowners point to cheaper property that already has recognized rights of way or the possibility of using public land.
According to the Minnkota project's federal environmental assessment, most of the line's study area is on agricultural land.
None of Minnkota's four proposed routes go through public land. Weckerly, who lives in North Dakota's central region, said that there's a good spot of public land near him where a route could go. It's owned by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Minnkota would have to go through a long legal process with no promise of being approved to build on it. Approaching a couple hundred landowners with easement options is easier for Minnkota, Weckerly said.
But pushing a transmission line through protected public land would almost certainly provoke outrage from environmentalists. The preferred route crosses a lot of wildlife easements, explained Todd Leake, a farmer and member of the state's Sierra Club chapter. It also travels close to the Cross Ranch state park and nature reserve.
"Those refuges are primarily for shorebirds that migrate to the Gulf Coast in the winter," Leake said. "And the biggest threat among migratory birds are power lines."
Many migratory birds that rest and breed in North Dakota's wetlands are federally protected. According to the transmission line's environmental assessment, wetlands encompass 12 percent of the study area's western portion and 5 percent of its eastern portion.
As a next step, the state's Public Service Commission is planning to hold public hearings on the Minnkota line in May. That could be a problem for many farmers in the thick of planting crops. North Dakota's spring planting season usually occurs in April and May, when the harsh winter finally gives way to thawed fields.
For now, the landowners represented by Shockley are figuring out how they should approach the PSC hearings.
"We can either intervene as a group or have individual testimonies," Shockley said. "The group is still determining how to approach them." Shockley said they haven't given him a direction one way or the other. He expects to have that figured out within the next few weeks.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the type of flow of Minnkota's transmission lines and the reach of the proposed line. The current line shared by Minnkota and Minnesota Power carries a direct current; the proposed line would carry an alternating current and would replace the coal power load from an existing line that extends to Duluth, Minn.