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CALDWELL COUNTY, Mo. – Mike Ford shoved the rifle he carries for coyotes onto the dashboard, and his old Dodge diesel truck took out rumbling over frozen pasture to carry hay to cattle.
It hadn’t gone a hundred feet before Ford started in on the people trying to – his word – “steal” his land.
“To me it’s not,” he said, the window down and temperature at minus 3.
Ford, 52, runs a cow-calf operation on 500 acres north of the little town of Polo, about 50 miles northeast of Kansas City. The plan all along had him and his wife retiring someday and turning the cattle business over to their son.
But now the farm stands in the way of a private company’s $2 billion proposal for high-voltage transmission lines to carry Kansas wind-generated electricity to Eastern states. Ford and some neighbors along the route of the Grain Belt Express from southwest Kansas to Indiana say the project – the first of its kind to cross Missouri – is unnecessary, the folly of billionaires, and will harm property values, impair production and generally destroy their way of life.
Houston-based Clean Line Energy, which would pay landowners for easements that could still be farmed, rejects the dire predictions. The company insists it’s not a folly and says it’s working hard to ensure that lives will not be affected.
“The future of Kansas wind energy depends on the export market and we’re going to have to build transmission lines,” said Mark Lawlor, director of development for the company.
Step aside, Keystone XL. Turns out it’s not only crude oil pipelines that can get a debate going about this country’s energy policy.
But after all the dirty talk of fossil fuels and global warming, wasn’t wind supposed to be the good guy?
In theory, yes. But 600,000 volts strung overhead is something else for some.
Still, the United States wants to increase its share of electricity that is wind-generated from the current 3.5 percent to 20 percent by 2030 – which is great for western Kansas because that part of the country has been dubbed “the Saudi Arabia of wind.”
Some farmers along the routes of planned transmission lines may feel intruded upon, but major environmental groups support the Grain Belt and Clean Line’s four other projects because wind energy, unlike coal, doesn’t contribute to global warming.
“We think it’s a good thing to get low-cost wind power out of western Kansas,” said John Hickey, president of the Sierra Club’s Missouri chapter.
Opponents say they are not against wind power. They just think Eastern states should produce their own. They point to a letter released in 2010 in which governors of 10 Eastern states said they opposed a national transmission corridor to bring wind energy from the Great Plains because they had plans to produce their own renewable energy.
But four years later the message has shifted, at least for some.
“It makes a lot of sense to get wind power from the Midwest,” said Collin O’Mara, secretary of energy and environmental affairs for Delaware, which was one of the states that signed the letter.
Not to the line’s opponents, it doesn’t. They think Eastern states can produce their own power but don’t want to because of costs and unsightliness – if it was a viable option four years ago, it’s viable now.
Criticism of another Clean Line project called Rock Island, from Iowa into Illinois, sounds much the same as for Grain Belt.
“Prime farmland will be taken out of production and impaired permanently,” a commenter wrote to the Illinois Commerce Commission. “(The project) would be a forced mandate by wealthy investors with one goal in mind: increased wealth on our backs.”
But research for the most part shows little effect on farm production caused by high-voltage power lines. Effect on land value is harder to nail down. Some studies indicate a negligible decrease, while one in Canada suggests far greater harm.
“There has been no real definitive study and that’s part of the problem,” said Lucas Nelsen, an energy-policy associate at the nonprofit Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb.
The farmers’ point about their way of life, however, is more subjective. They don’t want strangers coming onto their property any time they want. They don’t want this thing over their head, whether the lines are strung on monopoles or lattice structures, and they don’t want to hear it. Farmers like to sit outside on summer nights and look out over what is theirs.
Clean Line has critics along the 750-mile route, but maybe none louder than in Caldwell County, where “Block Grain Belt” signs stand in many yards. Polo is the only town where the company saw fit to open an office after a barrage of criticism from the local newspaper.
Area farmers plan to make their stand at hearings before the Missouri Public Service Commission that could happen later this year.
They talk about Clean Line like it’s a foreign enemy.
The company was started by Michael Skelly, a Peace Corps veteran who went on to lead Horizon Wind Energy, a major developer and operator of wind farms. Clean Line is backed financially by National Grid, an international energy company based in Great Britain, and also by the Houston-based Zilkha family and ZBI Ventures, which is connected to a private investment bank in New York.
The company, though, is getting compliments for working with landowners.
“Clean Line has been doing it right so far,” said Nelsen, adding that the Center for Rural Affairs supports transmission lines when done right.
The company sure didn’t get the welcome wagon in Polo. The office it opened on Main Street across from the Red Rooster Cafe is open only two days a week and, according to the coffee drinkers at the cafe, is staffed by “a girl from Kansas City.”
“They put her in there to deal with irate people,” farmer Kenneth Burnett said recently. “I think she’s got her hands full.”
Virginia Pautz lives on the farm where she grew up, on a gravel road about five miles north of Polo.
Her grandfather, Walter A. McNary, brought his bride there in 1912. Her father was born in the house and died in the house. Two years ago, the place was designated a Missouri Century Farm. Now it’s in the Grain Belt path.
“I keep hearing people say they will have to move,” she said. “Well, I can’t move. I can’t leave this place.
“I get up every morning and put on overalls and gum boots and go out and cut ice. We work here – this is life. For someone to think that money is going to make this OK is insulting.”
In Carrollton, Mo., an hour southeast of Polo, Nelson Heil sees the Grain Belt project differently from some farmers.
As Carroll County’s presiding commissioner, he thinks it would help his county’s economy, boost tax revenue for schools and help the country toward its goal of using more renewable energy. He has yet to be approached by opponents.
“It’s a good thing for us, our country and our people,” Heil said.
Clean Line said as much as 14 percent of the line’s power will end up being sold to consumers in Missouri, which now gets most of its electricity from coal. In addition, the state will get an economic boost of as much as $627 million from the project, which includes the jobs created to build the transmission line.
The fate of Grain Belt is unclear, although it has been approved by Kansas regulators. An online petition opposed the project, but most of the comments made at five public meetings were in favor.
Plans for the transmission line still require approval from state regulators in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. Opponents are expected at hearings, with plenty of passion about intrusion into farm life. But jumping into the country’s energy policy is more problematic.
“To suggest that there would no demand for Kansas (energy) is just not sustainable,” said John Howat, senior energy analyst for the National Consumer Law Center in Boston.
The reason: Wind energy is something the Midwest is really good at.
A turbine in Kansas can generate twice as much electricity as one in many other parts of the country. That makes Kansas wind very economical. Prices recently have been 2 to 3 cents per kilowatt hour, and even with 2.5 cents for transportation to the Eastern states, the rate would still undercut what utilities there pay for wholesale power.
Building wind farms in the Atlantic, once seen as having lots of potential for East Coast markets, has turned out to be a wildly expensive proposition. None has been built so far, and the one that is closest to getting started, in Massachusetts, carries a price of $2.7 billion, about four times as much as a wind farm in Kansas producing the same amount of power would cost.
The Massachusetts offshore wind farm, if built, plans to charge 19 cents per kilowatt hour. The cost has caused other states, including Delaware, to shelve offshore wind plans.