To get green energy from the windy Plains to the cities requires the construction of news transmission lines — and the disruption of land over thousands of miles.
“Wind energy is green, but its infrastructure is not,” wrote Bill Neiman, a businessman in Junction, Texas, explaining one of the emerging paradoxes of “green economy” promoted by the Obama administration.
Neiman lives in a part of West Texas that is mapped to be criss-crossed with power transmission lines leading from massive wind farms in the plains to the cities of San Antonio, Austin and Houston. “Remember, the lines will be strung from tower to tower, each tower standing as high as 180 feet tall and positioned about 1,300 feet apart,” Neiman continued. “The lines will run through a clear-cut easement as much as 160 feet wide.”
Another Texan who has seen new transmission lines come near his land said, “Nobody really realized how big and how disruptive these lines would be. We had pictures, but until you see a 180-foot, clear-cut path through oak trees and the 115-foot towers, you don’t know.”
Neiman is president of Clear View Alliance, one of a number of citizen groups that have formed to oppose transmission line construction around the rural U.S. His group has stalled one transmission line plan. Similar fights are taking place from West Virginia to California, as the country struggles with what is turning out to be the hardest question confronting the new green economy: How do we move electric power from one part of the country to another?
The conflict isn’t just between landowners and the companies stringing the line and building the towers. It’s a contest between East and West, between wind farmers and ranchers, between coal and renewable power and between environmentalists who advocate renewable power and environmentalists who want to protect the land.
The common playing field for all is rural America.
One problem with building a large wind energy business is distance. The wind that produces electricity can mostly be found in the Great Plains. The people who can use the power are hundreds of miles away. To more power from the Plains to the people requires transmission lines. And there aren’t any — or the ones already standing are filled to the brim and can’t carry the increased load from the wind turbines.
“The wind howling over the Great Plains and the unrelenting Southwestern sun pack enough energy to power the entire U.S. with clean, renewable electricity,” John Carey explained in an October 26 issue of Business Week. “Trouble is, there’s no way to get that power from the Dakotas or Nevada to America’s big cities, many on the East Coast.” And it turns out transmission lines are hard to build. They are big, ugly and chew up loads of land. They take forever to plan, permit and build — and so they haven’t been.
“The Achilles’ heel of renewable energy is transmission,” Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff told a forum sponsored by Energy Daily in Washington last month. “Many of the clean resources are located far from consumers.”
As each new transmission line is planned, the project raises opposition. Lately, the anti-transmission line forces have seen some success. Los Angeles recently dropped its plans to build an 85-mile-long line through desert and wildlife preserves after community and environmental groups opposed it. The line was designed to bring solar, geothermal and wind power generated in the California and Arizona deserts to L.A. (The decision to abandon the line led to the resignation of the city’s electric power administrator.)In Texas, the Lower Colorado River Authority has pulled back from plans to string wire across ranches between wind farms in the Panhandle and cities in the central part of the state. Ranchers had suggested the power-producing agency follow existing rights of way. LCRA asked for a delay in the planning process to examine these routes. A $1.8 billion project in the East has been fiercely opposed.
The one power line that has been built out from wind country has been entirely private, negating the need for troublesome hearings or “public input.” The FPL Group has completed a 200-miles from its Horse Hollow and Callahan Divide wind farms in West Texas to a substation near San Antonio, crossing over much of the same Hill Country territory as the planned LCRA lines. According to Reuters, however, FPL ponied up big money to landowners for rights of way along the route. This has raised expectations among other West Texas landowners — and raised the cost of other power line projects.
Wind farms have local support because they’ve been a major source of employment in the Plains. A Wall Street Journal reporter traveled to Nolan County, Texas — home to 10% of all wind-generated power in the U.S. — to find a new green economy in the flesh. “It’s helped the city kind of reinvent itself,” said city manager Cody Thompson. The town of Roscoe now has a Texas Wind Harvest Festival. And over in Sweetwater, the new mayor ran on a pro-wind power platform.
Within West Texas, then, wind power jobs are pitted against ranchers who don’t want metal pylons lording over their pastures. Meanwhile, ranchers who resisted transmission lines must now look at finished towers sitting on their neighbor’s property. And environmentalists who want “renewable” power for cities are matched against environmentalists who want to protect land from transmission lines. And anti-coal environmentalists fear that old fossil-fuel plans on the path of the new transmission lines will hope on board and send their cheap (but dirty) power to the cities.
The East/West conflicts are also still percolating. Eastern utilities would rather ask their customers to pay for more local forms of renewable power rather than tariffs for thousands of miles of transmission lines. They also don’t think Eastern customers should be billed — or taxed — for transmission lines that provide jobs in the Great Plains. “I don’t want federal tax dollars paying to export jobs to the West,” said one Eastern wind developer.Meanwhile, the opposition to transmission lines is growing more varied and savvy. A group of retirees in Santa Clarita have sued Southern California Edison for erecting “skyscraper” sized towers that have diminished the value of their property. (A common demand among opponents to transmission lines is that power companies erect single pole towers instead of the Erector Set versions.)
And in Mason County, in the Texas Hill Country, the largest city and the county government have created a land use planning commission that they believe must be involved in the routing of LCRA’s transmission line.
Freedom-loving West Texans don’t normally go out of their way to create new government planning agencies. But for the people who live between the wind farms and urban America, these aren’t normal times.