Renewable Energy’s Sweet Promise Comes with Some Bitter Pills for Rural Missouri

The growth of wind farming in Missouri creates green energy and less dependence on out-of-state- coal. But the impacts of turbines and transmission lines may also spark neighbor-to-neighbor, farmer-to-government, and rural-to-urban tensions.

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It started with huge electric generators on top of surface-mined coal seams conveyed right into the boiler. But Missouri coal has high sulfur content. Conflicts with acid rain and human health meant mothballing Missouri coal reserves. In the face of all that, people might think that coal-fired Missouri generators would be a thing of the past. But rail lines and cleaner Wyoming coal let us keep on burning tonnage, albeit with a 1,000 mile transportation bill.

That’s the only legal way Missouri can still get 80% of it’s electricity from coal.

Here on the edge of Langdon, I see loaded Burlington Northern Santa Fe coal cars heading south with an equal number of empties going back north night and day, a few hours apart round the clock.

It’s industrial.

Missouri’s New Deal Rural Electric Administration cooperatives are among the biggest supporters of coal. As far as they’re concerned, it’s cheap as dirt. That’s why Missouri REC boards opposed Obama administration efforts toward more renewable energy and a reduction in the use of coal for electrical generation.

But we have a growing number of wind farms in Missouri, some owned by foreign corporations. Modern wind turbines have almost doubled in size. Some can be as tall as 500 feet. Residents living nearby say they light up the house at night with red aviation avoidance lights. They say turbines are noisy, an eyesore, and destroy beneficial populations of bats and birds.

Their huge 1,000-ton concrete bases buried deep in into the earth render that spot unusable for anything else–forever. But with more towers going up every day, leaseholders are becoming savvier and are negotiating stricter terms, like removal of both the tower and its base, and access roads, should the lease be terminated.

Privatization has been the rallying cry for budget-minded politicians in Missouri and around the nation. That’s because they support virtually anything that reduces government. We have changed laws in Missouri to make it easier for big livestock corporations to acquire and control more land with less responsibility for air and water quality. We’ve supported businesses with tax credits made possible by collecting more taxes from private citizens, and exempted big business from personal liability.

So now it’s the business sector, not public utilities or cooperatives, driving investment in wind generated electricity.

They fit right in here.

It’s not just neighbors to wind turbines and RECs who aren’t happy. More wind turbines means more power transmission lines. As more wind towers go up, more lines materialize across rolling, treeless parts of rural Missouri. Farmers and property owners hosting those lines aren’t treated nearly as well as turbine leaseholders. Farmers hate power lines. That’s why being part of private industry instead of a public utility with right of eminent domain makes locating those power lines challenging.

In the past, eminent domain has been used to force landowners to accept power lines and even pipelines on their property. That’s part of the controversy surrounding the Canada-owned Keystone XL pipeline.

While much of the opposition to Keystone has come from Nebraska farmers, tribal groups and environmentalists wanting to head off tar sands oil at the border, Missouri resistance to wind turbines seems focused on the power lines needed to conduct electricity from rural areas to where it can be used.

Landowners lease the land that turbines occupy. In most cases the annual lease payment is worth more than the land itself. There are downsides, though. Those who don’t benefit from a lease may be forced to look at neighbors’ wind towers when they close a deal. But unlike eminent domain, in the case of turbines it is the landowners right to deny access to their property by not signing a lease.

That’s not the way power lines work. Eminent domain requires landowners to be compensated for the value of their land. It’s a one time payment sometimes supplemented by damages if maintenance requires a trip into the field. Farmers have little say as to what those payouts will be and are understandably upset when power companies run lines across their property. It’s even worse if private companies are allowed to do the same.

The difference is that not-for-profit public projects serve public needs—one for all and all for one. Private projects deliver service, but they also deliver profits to their private owners.

Even when compensation seems adequate, hosting a row of power line towers is nowhere near as rewarding as turbine leases. Many farmers can attest to the inconvenience of power lines crossing farm fields where straight corn rows must suddenly veer off and around. Farmers are also liable for damage they do to energy transmission lines whether they’re strung overhead or a buried pipe.

Farmers accept risk and reward every time they plant a crop. But with lines crossing farm fields there’s no reward, only risk. That and utility resistance to adequate compensation are what make power lines such a hard sale. In fact, utility companies are so powerful they’ll attempt to bully Missouri’s small local governments, which can lead to confrontations in court between the Public Service Commission and utility companies on one hand, and rural counties on the other.

New power lines like the Mark Twain line and private power line company Cleanline’s Grainbelt Express Line that rural Missourians have successfully resisted are needed to carry excess wind generated electricity through Missouri from places like Texas and Kansas, where wind power assets have grown even faster than Missouri’s.

Adding to the controversy is some of Missouri’s more progressive concentrated populations who have expressed a desire for more renewable energy. That pits rural Missouri against urban Missouri and helps give private power companies leverage they need.

Ironically, the controversy over long distance renewable energy transmission extends well past Missouri into Tennessee and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), where Senator Lamar Alexander says electricity demand has declined. Cheap renewable energy could be a burden on the economy there and compete unfairly with the TVA.

For now, in Missouri, the Cleanline project is on indefinite hold.

Adding to Missouri’s power quandary is a need to modernize our 50-year-old grid. Modern renewable energy sources like solar and wind use sophisticated electronics to monitor and control their operation. And with multiple sources of generation, managing the power grid funneling all that power into, around, and out of the state is an increasing concern. In some people’s eyes that means legislation allowing higher rates for power for companies like Ameren UE, the owner of the electricity-generating Lake of the Ozark’s Bagnell Dam.

In the past, it was suggested that Ameren should increase rates so they could grow financial reserves before making grid improvements. That was met with criticism by opponents who said Ameren was just looking for an excuse to take more money from its customers. In neighboring Illinois, that’s the way Ameren does it, but it was Missouri customers who saw their rates grow by 50% over eight years.

In the 2008 general election, Missouri voters approved Proposition C, which called for 15% of Missouri electricity to be from renewable sources generated in state.

That opened the door to more investment and jobs in Missouri renewable energy. Not all of Missouri’s politicians were happy, but the people had spoken.

Then Great Plains Energy, the parent company of Kansas City Power and Light, beseeched state legislators to relax rules in Prop C allowing KCP&L to use Kansas wind farms in meeting requirements. After deep thought and a little speechifying, legislators complied. That action in part encouraged more excess Kansas generation creating the need for a cross country transmission line to the east.

That’s the line Missourians are battling now.

All this proves is that:

  1. Missourians are still divided on wind turbines, and
  2. The only place in Missouri that’s windier than a north Missouri hilltop is the Capitol in Jefferson City.

Richard Oswald is a fourth-generation farmer from Langdon, Missouri. He is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.

 

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