Power Line Regulations Kink Wind Power Growth

Jan 19, 2016

You may take it for granted, but electricity gets to your outlets through wires that originate all the way back to the source.

Now, if that’s a solar panel on your roof, it’s not very far. But when it comes to wind, power is generated a long way from where it’s used — often crossing hundreds of miles, numerous personal property lines and, increasingly, state boundaries.

Building new high-voltage lines across all those jurisdictions is now the biggest obstacle to the growth of wind energy.

Out in western Kansas, big wind turbines produce lots of electricity, hundreds of jobs, tax revenue and a fair amount of income for farmers like Kermit Froetschner.

“It’s been a boon to this area for sure,” says Froetschner, who has 16 turbines on his land in Spearville, Kansas. “School districts, counties ... We like ‘em. Like to see some more.”

A lot of people would. After all, wind turbines don’t foul the atmosphere, and they generate electricity for less money than power plants burning fossil fuels. Federal tax credits and mandates to cut pollution can make wind even more attractive.

But there's a problem, says Michael Skelly, president of Clean Line Energy Partners, a 7-year-old company based in Houston, Texas. 

“There’s tremendous wind energy in western Kansas, just a phenomenal resource. You can produce wind energy at very low cost in western Kansas," says Skelly. “The issue is that there’s not many people that live out there.”

Utilities have built lots of new lines to connect wind farms to regional grids. Skelly wants go a step further. He started Clean Line to build long, very high voltage, transmission lines from windy states to more populous ones. The company is seeking approval for several projects, including one called the Grain Belt Express that Skelly says would carry enough Kansas wind power to energize almost a million and a half homes back east.    

But Clean Line has yet to build a single project, thanks in part to people like Jennifer Gatrel.

Jeff, Dalton, Maddy, and Jennifer Gatrel, on their back porch, in Caldwell, County, Missouri. Jennifer Gatrel helped organize a group to stop transmission lines from being built.
Credit Frank Morris / KCUR

"It’s really hard to convey to someone, who maybe lives in a neighborhood, how much this land is a part of us,” says Gatrel, standing on her back porch, overlooking 500 acres of woods and pasture that she, her husband, and two kids farm in rural northwest Missouri. “We love this land, we cherish this land, it is absolutely infinitely important to us."

The Gatrels practice what’s called homesteading -- producing most of their own food on the land. They raise cattle, horses and a few pigs, chickens, and geese.  They grow most of their own vegetables and heat their house with wood they collect from their property.

“This land is our retirement plan, it’s our vacation destination, it’s our workplace, it’s our school,” says Gatrel, who homeschools her two young children. “It’s absolutely everything to us.”

Gatrel flipped out when she got a postcard alerting her that Clean Line Energy proposed running a high-voltage line through their property. The company would pay market sale price for the land necessary — a 150-foot swath running through the property — and extra for each power line tower it installed. With all that, the Gatrels could still use the space between poles.

But Gatrel says it’s not worth the intrusion, the health worries or the eyesore, not even close. 

“In some of the rural communities, we see this as an invasion,” Gatrel says. “Many of our members are military veterans, and we are planning this out like a war.”

We’re not talking about an armed standoff here, but Gatrel helped organize a statewide campaign to stop the Missouri Public Service Commission from giving Clean Line powers of eminent domain to compel land owners to go along.

“Eminent domain for private gain is wrong. It goes against what it means to be an American,” she says.

State commissioners agreed, and narrowly rejected the plan. Not enough in it for Missouri, they said.

Rob Gramlich, with the American Wind Energy Association, argues that state commissions have out-sized influence on these projects.

“You may have a transmission line touching or affecting five states. Four of them may say, this is great, and it reduces our rates, and gives us access to cleaner energy and cleans up our air. But one state can say, no, I don’t want it. So, you can’t build it,” Gramlich says.

Clean Line may have found a workaround: a 10-year-old act of Congress that would give the U.S. Department of Energy jurisdiction over new interstate transmission line projects. Clean Line is pursuing DOE approval for a power line proposed to run from western Oklahoma across Arkansas, into Tennessee. The project ran into stiff opposition in Arkansas, but Skelly says he expects confirmation from the DOE shortly.

Clean Line hasn’t taken the Grain Belt Express proposal to the Department of Energy. The company plans to re-file its application with the Missouri Public Service Commission, sweetening the deal somewhat with promises of low-cost, carbon-neutral power delivered to Missouri, and lots of jobs.

The most recent version of the project would miss the Gatrel’s place entirely, following natural gas and petroleum pipelines that run a couple miles south of there. Still, Gatrel and her network are bracing to fight whatever route Clean Line proposes across her state.

Frank Morris is a national correspondent and senior editor at KCUR 89.3. You can reach him on Twitter, @FrankNewsman.