05 February 2013

Powerline Not Welcome in Sandhills

A project is now underway to construct a large, lengthy power transmission line through the central sand hills. Wind turbine facilities are expected to then be built. Both with alter features distinctive to the region, so herewith are some further considerations, with a focus on significant, transformative changes.

The R Project

Upon learning about the potential for an industrial transmission line across the grassy dunes and valleys of the region, an email was sent in November 2011 to an official of the Nebraska Public Power District, the project proponent.

The pertinent question was: When would there be an opportunity for public comment as to whether or not the line should be built?

The reply indicated my inquiry was "putting the cart before the horse," and that "various environmental agencies and NGOs are included along with landowners and public officials in reviewing" project plans. A public review would occur only after a decision regarding construction of the line.

This proposed project was initially approved by the NPPD board of directors. Construction approval was given January 31, 2012, by the board of directors of the Southwest Power Pool, an oversight group representing numerous utility companies in Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

This group, with one representative from NPPD, approved a 220-mile line that would start near at the NPPD power station by Sutherland, go northward, probably through McPherson and Hooker counties, onward into Cherry county, and eventually eastward through Brown and Rock counties, ending somewhere in Holt county.

None of the SPP directors who rubber-stamped the NPPD proposal, live in the Sand Hills.

An essential consideration is that NPPD has not, according to details conveyed by company representatives, project information as given on the company website, nor by other known publicly available information, indicated specific details as to why a new power line is needed.

One sentence in a NPPD press release issued in January, 2013, says the line would "enhance transmission system reliability" and "relieve congestion from existing lines within the transmission system."

There are no known, publicly available sources to independently evaluate current reliability or line load conditions. If improvements to enhance reliability are planned, does that indicate that the line(s) are not now reliable? This would be a dubious claim by a critic, but NPPD is including this rationale to promote construction of a new line.

A third point given in the utility company press release is that the power line would "provide opportunities for additional renewable energy generation."

This statement indicates that the powerline is also being built to facilitate construction of wind-turbine developments by for-profit companies that would then sell the energy to a local or regional utility.

Though there are no currently known project proposals amidst the central sandhills, there is an obvious intent to build them.

The Cherry County Wind Advisory Committee, for example, is actively working to facilitate turbine projects within the county. There is MET tower operating and map indications for a turbine development in northeast Arthur county, as previously reported in the Grant County News.

Building a regional transmission line would make it feasible for local turbine projects to construct a wind-turbine facility that would also likely include a connector line to link into the regional power-grid.

Without the proposed 345,000-volt R Project line, an option to "transport" turbine-generated power elsewhere, is not currently available.

There is also a dearth of information on who will bear the burden for the cost of constructing the R-Project line. Will customers of NPPD — which has indicated a project cost of about $290 million — bear the payment burden for a transmission line essential for profit-driven, wind-turbine developments.

This would seemingly mean that utility customers would pay for a powerline to allow private development and profit?

How Many Powerlines?

The expectation for the R-Project and its line of towers and wire across the landscape of the central Sandhills, would be just the most recent addition of this sort.

There is already a high-capacity NPPD line from east of North Platte, northward through central Logan County and by Stapleton, then to Thedford, continuing north and then east across the southeast corner of Cherry county, and onward to near the eastern boundary of Rock county and eventually northward to the Highway 20 corridor.

It is not possible to determine specifics associated with NPPD facilities, because, according to a NPPD official, they do not "give out maps of its transmission system due to security issues."

This creates a conundrum. Any sort of informed evaluation or consideration of current line routes, potential corridor alignments, line upgrades options and perhaps other options cannot be suitably done if pertinent details are not available.

There are also other powerlines present and pertinent in any considerations.

A "sub-transmission" line extends across the sandhills westward from near Stapleton to Tryon. It is apparently operated by Custer Public Power.

Another line, which also starts in the vicinity of the Gerald Gentleman power plant near Sutherland, goes westward along the north side of the Platte valley, and then northward, near the east side of Lake McConaughy, by Arthur and then to Hyannis. This line is apparently owned by Tri-State Generation, Colorado.

An alignment of towers and wires also occurs in the Mullen vicinity, and can be readily seen along the south side of Highway 2.

There is another high-line in the general vicinity southward of Highway 20, from the eastern extent of Cherry county, and onward a relatively short distance south of Highway 20, as especially prominent further westward, especially south of Nenzel.

View of an industrial powerline, south of Nenzel, Cherry county.

The prospective route for the R-Project does not conform to any of these alignments. NPPD is intent upon building a big line through the region, and proceeding upon a course of undeniable result.

Rather than following an already established route, especially in association with the eastern line alignment along the Logan-Thomas county route, NPPD has indicated a preference to establish an entirely new powerline corridor.

The utility company has not indicated any alternatives to the route associated with the R Project. Placing any new powerline along an already established corridor would have numerous benefits.

Example of an industrial powerline along Highway 92, Nebraska.

Line Impacts

NPPD officials convey that they meet with local residents to understand any particular concerns, in order to "minimize impacts" associated with company projects. Certainly, at public meetings, company officials listen attentively to anyone wanting to express their view.

Local residents and anyone else having a voice as to whether or not it should even be built is seemingly being ignored? Certainly the power company is going through the legally required processes to get public input and to consider environmental concerns. Public meetings do allow local residents to express their thoughts.

Asking for landowner input on obvious land features to avoid, how to minimize impacts, and other key items are a basic responsibility of the company. The perspective of NPPD is that local residents should respond to the companies request and intent.

Property owners along a potential utility route have no obligations to meet the demands of a company expecting to construct something across private property.

There is the obvious perspective that some comments may be significantly insignificant. Changes for a project may occur, but if an owner of a key tract of land doesn't want to allow utility construction on their property, their decision means nothing. NPPD has the right of eminent domain to allow encroaching upon any land necessary to construct a powerline, despite any objections by the property owner.

Entirely missing in any other discussion is the alternative of completely avoiding impacts, i.e., a no-construction option.

The proposed transmission line will mar open, expansive perspectives of seemingly endless rolling dunes and grasslands. These unique features are not present anywhere else in North America, nor anywhere else upon this world.

There will be a degradation of essential values, which have been most recently marred by the erection of communication and cellular towers, and other slights in past decades.

Incessant blinking lights are already a scourge among the dark sky horizon every night in the Sand Hills. During a personal saga to visit peak places in the western sand hills some years ago, so many blinks were obvious from atop numerous hilltops/dunes. An intent to appreciate and experience complete darkness in the region, wasn't possible.

Any industrial powerline would be a hazard for birds. Transmission lines are a well-documented threat and would be especially prominently in regards to two of the most distinctive species of the region.

Nearly one of five known deaths of Trumpeter Swans documented by one scientific study in the central U.S., were the result of a collision with a powerline.

These majestic swans are a prominent resident in Cherry county, especially during the breeding season, and in more localized places during winter months. The population is doing well, but a new powerline hazard could be detrimental and perhaps result in dead birds beneath the wires.

In regards to the endangered Whooping Crane, there are numerous, documented instances of their mortality due to their hitting a power line. Details are available through a simple web search. The projected route for the "R Project" would be centrally located within the well-known, Great Plains migratory corridor, for this distinctive species.

Where many sorts of migratory birds have, in the past, freely flown along, they now have to contend with subtle powerlines and proliferating wind turbines poking into the sky. Numerous turbine projects in South Dakota and Kansas are among the many new hazards.

Consider how Greater Prairie Chickens, distinctive and prevalent birds of the grasslands, would respond to a powerline through the middle of their living space? The Sand Hills are key habitat for survival of this distinctive species, as obvious by looking at maps of their current distribution. According to scientific research, "prairie hens" do not like "towering" structures, so any massive poles will diminish the habitat, and certainly make a difference as to where these birds eke out an existence.

Since there is a 220 mile corridor for the R-Project powerline, a vast expanse of land won't be suitable for these birds. Similar considerations apply to Sharp-tailed Grouse, though to a lesser extent as this species is more prevalent in the western extent of the Sand Hills.

A huge variety of other sorts of fowl — numbering in the few hundreds of species — occur in area lakes, marshes and meadows, and the incomparable grasslands. Any resident can step outside, early on a spring day and realize the nature of the situation.

The powerline, once built, will be an imposition upon what at one time, perhaps already long gone, was a distinct landscape with incomparable perspectives. Slowly but certainly, ongoing and seemingly unending transformations alter and degrade special characteristics of this place. If built, the R Project would mean the demise of more, formerly, wide-open spaces in the sand hills.

NPPD has not indicated anything that would be done to ensure an "open landscape" since their intent is to construct a powerline.

A 220-mile powerline, would be visible along an adjacent corridor, extending perhaps, and probably, depending upon terrain, ten miles in either opposing direction. This correlates to possibly more than 4000 square miles (220 x 20).

The entire extent of the Sand Hills is reportedly about 19,300 square miles.

Wind Turbines Questionable

Despite any claims to the contrary, wind turbines are a dubious source of alternative energy. Obvious, and well-documented reasons include:

1) Wind-turbine power is not an economically viable source of energy. U.S. taxpayers have paid billions of dollars to subsidize the development of wind turbine power. The current, legislatively approved, U.S. government subsidy is 2.2 cents for each kilowatt of electricity produced.

One report indicates the cost for wind energy development has been a $12.1 billion expense for the U.S. taxpayers for a ten-year period.

Yet, the subsidy continues. Legislation passed in December 2012 to address the so-called "fiscal cliff" situation included a provision to continue this subsidy. Without this, wind-turbine construction had been predicted to dramatically decline, and company lay-offs of associated employees had already occurred.

Land-owners can certainly personally benefit by leasing their property to turbine facility developers. They get a cash payment. The tax-paying public make this possible. So a property-owner in Cherry county, for example, that signs a contract to allow construction of a wind turbine facility upon their property, is taking advantage of a government subsidy, for their personal profit.

2). Any contribution of wind-turbine power in reducing CO2 emissions is also questionable. With the sporadic nature of wind-generated electricity — which reportedly operate effectively only 35-40% of the time — other power generation sources have to be kept online to provide electricity if the wind isn't blowing. Rather than operating at peak efficiency, these facilities are kept on standby status.

There are negative carbon impacts due to the manufacture and shipping of turbine structures, associated equipment, vehicle travel during the construction process with its road building, use of massive amounts of concrete which make it possible to erect turbines, and other ancillary work.

3). Social impacts of huge turbines in the sky include the potential loss of rural amenities including cultural heritage, landscape degradation, reduction in recreational values, and a potential reduction in property values.

4). There are potential health impacts due to the flicker of the turbine blades and associated noise, as indicated by several sources of information. Loss of sleep and an increased stress have been known to occur in the vicinity of industrial wind turbine facilities.

5). Wild spaces are being fragmented by wind turbine facilities. Turbine farms can be placed on disturbed ground — perhaps among an expanse of corn fields — but in places such as the sand hills, any sites which encroach upon native prairie grasslands, distinctive lakes or wetlands, could degrade the quality of thousands of acres of what had been quality habitat.

For example, the Grande Prairie Project proposed for construction northeast of O'Neill, would be built across 50,000 acres, according to the sparse details found online. It would have a currently unreported number of wind turbines. A feature the developer conveys — as apparently they might be the first development to do so — is that the energy generated would be sent outstate.

6). Birds and bats are killed by rotating blades of wind turbines. Tens of thousands of birds are estimated as dying due to this mortality source. The industry often expresses the expected mortality rate, with one estimate for grasslands indicating a rate of 2.19 birds/turbine/year.

Considering these impacts has become so onerous to the industry, that a coalition of developers requested that the Fish and Wildlife Service, through the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, provide a "general permit" that would allow the "incidental take" of endangered and threatened birds, including the whooping crane, least tern, piping plover and other significant species.

An associated "habitat conservation plan" is now being considered, as being facilitated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in response to a proposal by a consortium of 19 wind-energy companies. For the Great Plains Wind Energy HCP, the Nebraska area would extend from western Grant county, eastward to a line associated with Antelope, Butler and Jefferson counties. Overall the HCP would extend from the northern boundary of North Dakota, to the Texas coast, and include portions of nine states.

Any action undertaken by participants in this HCP would be voluntary, including any conservation efforts, according to details given on a FWS website.

The incidental take permit would be issued for a 45-year period. This plan is still being prepared, and is expected to undergo public comment during mid-2013.

Any death of single bird at a wind turbine, or many other things such as buildings, is an incidental take, according to MBTA provisions. Typically, the agency ignores the mortality.

At the Ainsworth Wind Energy Facility, built upon hilltops previously associated with a place known as Ikenburg Hill, studies paid for by NPPD, document that several sorts of sand hill birds are regularly killed by the turbines.

The study, done during when season when the facility had been newly built, indicated that about 150 birds, would be killed each year because of the 36 turbines at the facility. The approximate kill rate was 4.10 deaths, per year, per turbine. Prominent among the fourteen species recorded were the Horned Lark and Western Meadowlark.

Nationally, mortality is an estimated 440,000 birds yearly, which will increase as more turbines are placed across the landscape.

7). There will be an increase in traffic and resultant dust in association with turbine projects. Road and facility construction on sandy, wind-blown hilltops can result in blowouts and increased erosion on the relatively loose, and inherently unstable substrate. The current grass-cover often is not even sufficient to prevent this from occurring.

Direct impacts of these sorts, occur especially in association with ridge-tops and bluffs and stop-over and breeding sites such as wetlands.

8). Landscape degradation occurs as wind turbines are constructed. What was once a natural perspective is not the same with "constructs" prevalent on the horizon.

During a very recent conversation, someone who's family ranch is in western Custer county, said they could see turbines associated with the Broken Bow facility on the eastern skies, from a vantage point at the West Table, more than a dozen miles westward. Another resident in the same area, has also said that the blinking lights atop the turbines near Broken Bow are obvious from high points near their home in the western extent of the county.

Additional Considerations

Nebraska currently generates 1000 megawatts more power than is used within the state, according to details indicated by a Nebraska Power Association report issued in July 2012. This situation is indicated as continuing until at least 2024.

Energy development within Nebraska includes projects that will send any generated power elsewhere. Recent legislative action by the Nebraska legislature made this legally possible just a couple of years ago. The energy generated may not benefit local residents, but other consumers hundreds of miles distant. There are plans underway to construct huge power lines to transport plains-generated power to eastern markets.

There are other alternatives.

One obvious renewable energy source are solar panels installed where the power would be locally used. Consider how beneficial it would be if, for example, the city of Valentine or Hyannis, developed 50% of its power from solar panels on local rooftops.

What is certainly not known in discussions on this issue, are published commentary by Sandhillers. What are their thoughts and concerns associated with the special qualities of the region? Do residents and others interested in the future of the region prefer that outside entities continue to make significant, imposing decisions on the "fate" of this region, its communities, and its future?

There are obvious reasons for concern. An essential heritage, is disappearing, one not so subtle step at a time.

Will there be any open land and sky without an imposed powerline, cell tower, building, tree planting or other development, for future generations to enjoy? Where would someone, a couple of decades from now, go to view a vast landscape of grass moving with the wind, and to appreciate a natural land where the birds sing or fly freely across a cerulean sky?

Will there be such a setting in the future of the Nebraska Sand Hills?

This article was also issued in the Grant County News during the week of March 14, 2013.

This comment was received via email regarding the R-Project powerline. It is quite interesting the comments it expresses. There was no name given as to whom the author was.

"Just read your blog about NPPD "R-project" and associated powerlines in the Sand Hills on WildBirds webpage. WHY,, why, why dont you nature-lovers put your money where your crap mouth is ??????? I am a landowner along the R-project route. I welcome it. EVERY year i have to pay property tax, about $5000 on that rangeland. My home property tax is $444. I WELCOME any project that will help pay that $5000 yearly bill !!!! If you or your friends want to save the birds and "undisturbed natural rolling hills" , how about CONTRIBUTING some of your own money to me so i can pay that $5000?????? How about it Mr. Big Mouth ??? How much are you willing to send me ???? Am happy to provide a mailing address!"