To get power from wind turbines to customers in the cities will require thousands of miles of new transmission lines. Wind is the easy part. Building the lines is tougher.
My wife’s family has operated a ranch in West Texas for going on five generations, ever since an adventurous New Yorker sailed to Galveston in the 1870s, bought some sheep and settled, finally, west of the fort in San Angelo. The land isn’t pristine. It’s been grazed and sections have been punched by companies looking for oil and gas. But the ranch is an amazing piece of West Texas landscape.
The ranches are about to be criss-crossed by two high-voltage electric transmission lines to be built by a public power agency, the Lower Colorado River Authority. Our cousins aren’t happy. But there’s not a lot they can do except to try to steer the mammoth towers away from the ranch house and the motts of live oaks that thrive in the draws.
The LCRA lines near San Angelo are part of what some describe as a high-voltage “superhighway” being built across the country. There are tens of thousands of miles of new transmission lines planned or under construction, most traversing ranch and farm land. Some estimate that the country will spend up to $200 billion dollars building out a new electric grid. Most of that money will be spent in rural America, as new transmission lines are strung to connect the wind turbines on the Plains to the cities.
“The wind is the easy part, much easier than the transmission,” said Shelley Sahling-Zart, a vice president of the Lincoln (Nebraska) Electric System. Finding the billions needed for new transmission lines will be difficult. And many of the people standing in the way of this new “superhighway” of high tension lines and giant erector sets of pylons and steel will put up a fuss.
They are already resisting. Last week, some 400 landowners in rural Central Texas showed up for a Saturday night meeting to protest a new transmission line that would require a 20-mile long, 160-foot wide trail to be clearcut through ranch land near the Lampasas River.
“This would be an ecological disaster,” said Lynn Eyberg, president of Save the Lampasas, a citizens group. “It would damage hunting and fishing in the area and seriously impact the livelihood of a lot of the landowners.” The Eybergs (Lynn and Doug) have a ranch in Oakalla, Texas, and two of the three proposed routes will cut through their property. One route would cut close to the river. Another would “march one mile across the top of our property,” Eyberg says.
The news is filled with these conflicts between landowners and those who are building the new transmission lines. Two hundred people in Livermore, California, turned out last month to protest a 600-mile transmission line that would run through the farms and vineyards of Alameda County. Similar protests have cropped up elsewhere in California and in New York.
The oldest story in the country is that rural America pays the largest price for producing the power used in the cities. But the massive investment in transmission lines now underway is immensely complicated. The construction of new lines and the lease payments they bring will benefit some rural residents, while others see it as unmitigated destruction.
Landowner is pitted again landowner, environmentalist against environmentalist and region against region:
• Millions of dollars in wind energy projects are being held up because there isn’t the transmission capacity to move the electricity into the cities. Ledyard King and Larry Bivins report in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader that up to 300,000 megawatts of wind projects are on hold because of insufficient transmission capacity. “It’s a huge problem for future development,” said Steve Wegman, executive director of the South Dakota Wind Energy Association. “It’s like sitting on 1 million bushels of corn and having no way to move it out of there other than a five-gallon bucket.” Transmission capacity is the “glass ceiling for renewable energy development right now,” said one wind energy advocate.
• The argument for spending billions of dollars for new transmission lines comes from environmentalists who want to replace coal-fired power plants with wind power. They describe new electric lines as “green power superhighways.” Other environmentalists say this is a “green oxymoron,” that there is nothing more environmentally destructive than clear-cuts and power lines overlording plains, pastures and wilderness.
• Finally, there is regional disagreement over the need to build new transmission lines. Western states see a clear need for new lines. Eastern states aren’t so sure.
David Sassoon writes that Eastern states fear that spending billions on moving wind power from the West to the East will make the system less reliable and will forestall alternative energy development on their side of the Mississippi River. Eleven governors of states along the eastern seaboard wrote: “While we support the development of wind resources for the United States wherever they exist, this ratepayer funded revenue-guarantee for land-based wind and other generation sources in the Great Plains would have significant, negative consequences for our region.”
State and federal authorities are working through the conflicts that the transmission-line boom is creating. In mid-June, federal and state officials in the West signed an agreement pledging to work together on protecting wildlife corridors used by migratory animals such as pronghorn, caribou, mule deer and elk.
“By making wildlife protection an integrated part of our clean energy effort, we will tap the West’s renewable energy resources more quickly and in a more responsible way,” Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar said. “This agreement will accelerate renewable energy projects and new transmission lines and the jobs those projects will create.”
Meanwhile, Congress may give the federal government the power to override state decisions about transmission line routing. Last week a Senate committee passed legislation that “would give the federal government authority to override state objections to expanding electricity transmission lines,” according to a Reuters report. The energy bill passed by the House contains funding for new transmission lines.
The Pew Center for Climate Change calculates that if wind power is to provide 20% of the nation’s power by 2030, as much as $4 billion a year will have to be used to build new transmission lines, a 50% increase over what is currently spent. Adding these expenses to the cost of wind raises the price of this renewable resource by 15 percent.
Pew figures these new transmission lines cost between $2 and $4 million per mile. And until they’re built, the potential for wind energy will be stymied.