The rolling plains of Midwest farm country are being tapped for their natural resources again. This time, though, the bounty would be wind energy, instead of corn, wheat or soybeans.
Houston-based utility company Clean Line Energy Partners wants to produce a massive amount of wind energy on the plains. To do that, the company plans to build five large-scale high voltage transmission lines that would criss-cross the country, three of which would bring energy from Midwestern windmills to the energy grid to the east.
As anyone who has spent time on the Great Plains can attest, there is massive potential for wind energy there. But farmers and other rural residents – would-be neighbors of the high voltage electric lines – aren’t necessarily sold on Clean Line’s projects.
An ‘Economic Boon’
Standing on a farm in O’Brien County, Iowa, it’s hard to imagine the converter station that would replace about 50 acres of Jay Hofland’s cornfields. If the project goes through, that’s where wind power from turbines nearby will be fed into a direct current, high voltage power line called the Rock Island Clean Line. Plans call for it to span 500 miles across the entire state. Clean Line also has plans for long power lines in Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and Illinois.
Hofland says the Rock Island Clean Line would be an economic boon for O’Brien County.
"I’m a fifth-generation farmer here,” Hofland said. “And one thing we’ve seen is a decline in population."
The Rock Island Clean Line is a $2 billion project and Hofland is a big supporter of it. He kind of has to be—he’s about to live next door.
"This gives us a real opportunity for investment in our county – hopefully some more jobs, and for my sons who are 18 and 20 to have an opportunity to live around here," Hofland said.
Not everyone in the line’s path agrees. Not all landowners like the idea of a 120- to 200-foot transmission line going up on their property. The family who rents a home next to Hofland’s cornfield has been warned they’ll probably have to move in a couple of years—they politely declined an interview for this story.
Beth Conley, Clean Line’s regional manager, says the project will increase the capacity of Iowa’s wind energy industry because it creates a way to deliver electricity to states further east.
"A number of those states have passed renewable portfolio standards that will require them to have so much of their energy from clean or renewable sources, some as early as 2015," Conley said.
She adds that eastern states don’t have the capacity to create that wind locally and Iowa does.
"Because there’s not a lot of demand for energy up in northwest Iowa, and really, not a lot of demand in Iowa that’s not already being met," Conley said.
For the Rock Island project, Conley says Clean Line would pay $7,000 in county taxes per mile of line—500 miles total.
Concern About ‘Unintended Consequences’
Some landowners are supportive. Many people in O’Brien County have already leased some of their land to other wind energy projects, like a 218-turbine field funded by MidAmerican Energy slated for completion in 2015. But others aren’t so keen.
Future neighbors of the line have already begun organizing an opposition group, the Preservation of Rural Iowa Alliance. Carolyn Sheridan, director of the newly formed group, says one of her major concerns about the line is that it sends wind power out of state.
"We feel that a high voltage transmission line that is coming across Iowa should indeed benefit Iowans for their electrical consumption," Sheridan said. "We also feel that we should be listened to, that we should be able to have a say in what happens to property."
Sheridan says property owners need a voice in the process because utility projects like Clean Line can be granted approval by the Iowa Utilities Board to seek eminent domain. That means, if certain criteria are met, a landowner could be forced to sell an easement to Clean Line and would be paid according to a recommendation from their county.
"We want to make sure it’s responsible," said Sheridan, who farms near Greenville, Iowa. "We are concerned about unintended consequences."
At least 81 people in five northwest Iowa counties have already filed objections to the Iowa Utilities Board and the board expects more when Clean Line opens negotiations in counties further east.
In Illinois, where the Rock Island Clean Line would end, the opposition is even stronger—more than 400 people have submitted comments or formal complaints to the state’s utility regulator. The Illinois Farm Bureau formally opposed the project last year.
Further south, a similar Clean Line project called the Grain Belt Express would stretch through Kansas, Missouri and into Indiana. The project wouldn’t be completed until 2018, but is already facing opposition from farmers as well.
A spokesperson for Clean Line said they want all land acquisition to be voluntary. That’s why they began negotiations long before their anticipated construction dates.
With a project scope that goes through 16 of Iowa’s 99 counties, Clean Line has a lot of landowners to convince. Daryl Haack, who farms in Primghar, Iowa, has begun organizing O’Brien County farmers to negotiate with Clean Line.
"There will be more projects in this county,” Haack said. “This area is going to be covered in windmills. If we can, (we should) help make those easements fair, make those contracts fair (and) comparable."
Haack is also a board member of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.
"The meat we raise, the cattle, the hogs… it’s not used in O’Brien County,” Haack said. “It’s shipped where they need it. So what’s the difference when you do the same with electricity?"
Making The Project Work
The contracts Clean Line offers to landowners range in size and the company won’t disclose what they offer when negotiations are underway. But Clean Line’s presentation to the Illinois Commerce Commission included an example slide saying landowners were compensated at about $8,000 per acre, plus a lump sum per structure on their property, depending on how large it is. Landowners could also opt for smaller annual payments.
But Haack says, even if a landowner says no and all his neighbors say yes, Clean Line can still seek the right of eminent domain through condemnation proceedings.
"That’s the biggest concern I’ve heard,” Haack said. “As soon as they mentioned condemnation, people got upset. But that’s the only way you can make a project like that work."
As landowners in the northwest mull over selling an easement to Clean Line, farmers in north-central Iowa will soon be faced with the same decision. And as more wind energy projects gain steam, it’s a decision rural residents across the Midwest will be faced with.
This story originally aired as part of Under the Microscope, a weekly program about science, health, and technology in mid-Missouri.