Sandhills power line: Scar on the land or gateway to more wind energy?

Source: By ALGIS LAUKAITIS, LINCOLN JOURNAL STAR • Posted: Tuesday, March 10, 2015

 R-Project and the Sandhills

THEDFORD — Rancher Stuart Scranton doesn’t know exactly where NPPD plans to cross his land with a high-voltage power line, but he fears it might be right where migratory geese stop and rest, white-tailed deer graze and prairie chickens dance during mating season.

“Dad, it’s going to be right in our front yard,” his daughter Shaylee, 16, said after looking at a map of the final route selected by the Nebraska Public Power District for the 220-mile-long, 345,000-volt R-Project.

Scranton’s ranchland abuts U.S. 83 north of Thedford, and the pasture that attracts the geese and deer and prairie chickens is one of his favorite spots.

He and a handful of other ranchers say the project as now routed would scar the landscape with access roads, destroy wet meadows and windbreaks, harm sensitive wildlife areas, create blowouts (areas where wind erosion literally “blows out” holes in the landscape) and open the region to more power line projects and development.

“This is a disaster for the Sandhills,” said Dan Welch, a 70-year-old rancher and Scranton’s neighbor. “It will tear it up for life.

“It’s a terrible thing for the future. We just hope they do what’s right.”

NPPD disagrees, strongly, that it will cause irreparable harm to the Sandhills, a 20,000-square-mile region of stabilized sand dunes that cover roughly a quarter of the state.

“We’re Nebraskans,” said NPPD Chief Operating Officer Tom Kent. “We have a great care for the entire state including the Sandhills. I agree the Sandhills are a special place.

“This project is being completed because we have a need and benefit for Nebraskans.”

‘Last great prairie’

Noted author Jim Harrison has written extensively about the Sandhills, which he calls the last great prairie.

Cattle outnumber people out here, and towns are as scarce as trees. Some people rolling along the highway see desolation. Others marvel at the endless rolling hills, the natural beauty of an unspoiled landscape, uncluttered horizons and dark night skies.

In 1984, the U.S. Department of the Interior declared 32,900 acres of the Sandhills in Grant County a national natural landmark.

The R-Project

In 2012, NPPD began an extensive process to determine the best path for its R-Project transmission line; 26 informational meetings, eight public hearings and 2,500 comments later, the Columbus-based utility selected a final route late last year.

NPPD says the project will improve reliability and reduce congestion on the existing transmission line system and provide new capacity for future wind farms so renewable energy can be moved within Nebraska or exported.

In October, the Nebraska Power Review Board approved the project — the largest ever proposed by NPPD — over the objection of ranchers who organized themselves into a grassroots group called Save the Sandhills and presented a petition with nearly 1,600 signatures to the board.

The board was not swayed, and approved the project 5-0.

Power Review Board executive director Tim Texel said the board has no say on what route a utility selects. It has statutory authority to approve or deny a project based on public convenience and necessity, economics and feasibility and unnecessary duplication.

With Review Board approval, NPPD can start survey and design work and contact landowners to get easements. It still could make minor changes to the route based on input from landowners and a mandated environmental impact statement being done by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But NPPD officials say any big changes are extremely unlikely.

Kent, NPPD’s chief operating officer, noted that the Nebraska Legislature has pushed for more wind energy development and that companies are looking at Cherry County and the western part of the Sandhills to develop wind farms. Now, he said, there’s no way to move electricity from those areas.

So far, Kent said, NPPD has built just nine miles of transmission lines to serve wind farms.

Some ranchers believe the R-Project is also being built for the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline proposed for the eastern edge of the Sandhills, and they see no benefit to them from the line because they don’t use a lot of electricity.

“Everybody will get power from the line,” said NPPD spokesman Mark Becker. “Everyone will benefit from this, including the proposed oil pipeline if it is ever built.”

Another key reason for building the line is to reduce the risk from ice storms that can cripple the statewide transmission system, Kent said. In 2007, an ice storm knocked down more than 1,000 miles of power lines and 1,137 towers and poles, leaving 30,000 customers without electricity for days.

“This transmission line gives us another big, strong link in our transmission network,” Kent said.

The line is being built at the request of the Southwest Power Pool, a federally mandated regional transmission organization that serves nine states including Nebraska. The line was identified as part of a 10-year strategic plan to expand and strengthen the pool’s transmission network to prevent widespread power outages.

NPPD, Omaha Public Power District and the Lincoln Electric System are members of the power pool and will help pay for the $362-million project. Construction is set to begin in 2017 and end by September 2018.

According to Kent, if NPPD was not building the line, another utility or private company selected by the power pool would.

“I would rather NPPD was doing it — Nebraskans working with Nebraskans — to ensure the project is completed in an environmentally responsible manner, respecting the uniqueness of the Sandhills and the people who live there,” he said.

Some ranchers, however, believe NPPD has turned a deaf ear to their concerns, some of which are shared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Ranchers and the federal agency say they’ve suggested at least half a dozen alternate routes to avoid sensitive environmental areas and NPPD has rejected them all.

Kent noted the two years of planning, extensive public participation and many hours of work.

“We’re not going to move the route.”

Environmental impact

Some Sandhills ranchers are pinning their hopes on the Wildlife Service and its environmental impact statement, which will examine the potential effect of the project on endangered or threatened species along the final route for the R-Project.

“It’s going through the Sandhills and crossing several rivers that have a tremendous amount of fish and wildlife resources,” said Bob Harms, a Wildlife Service biologist based in Grand Island. “It’s unfragmented grasslands. It’s a huge resource for migratory birds and threatened and endangered species.”

Some of the highest populations of the endangered American burying beetle in the U.S. are found along the route as well, he said.

“In the Sandhills, it’s difficult to estimate how many total beetles there are because they are widespread and move a lot.”

Harms said NPPD knows the R-Project will harm burying beetle populations and has asked for a federal permit to allow it to “take” the insects.

Just how many burying beetles can be killed during construction will be determined by the environmental impact statement, which is set to be completed by the end of next year.

Among other things, the statement will include conservation measures that NPPD will be required to implement to minimize the impact of the project — mainly on burying beetles, Harms said.

“We’ll be looking at other species, too,” he said, including blowout penstemon and the western prairie fringed orchid, as well as the endangered whooping crane and other migratory bird populations.

Wildlife Service can recommend alternatives to avoid affecting endangered species, Harms said, but NPPD is not required to follow its recommendations.

Wildlife Service and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission have discussed the potential environmental impacts of the project with NPPD, which has offered a list of conservation measures it plans along the route.

In September, the commission wrote a letter to the Power Review Board saying the project “may affect, but is not likely to adversely affect,” state-listed endangered or threatened species.

Many ranchers wanted the Wildlife Service to testify before the Power Review Board before it issued its final order on the project, but Texel denied their request. Under state law, the board is only required to consult with Game and Parks.

The board relied on the commission’s letter when it issued its final order in December, and Harms wasn’t happy with some of the language in the order.

“Throughout this document it makes reference to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and it implies that we were satisfied with the conservation measures that NPPD proposed and that we were somehow satisfied with the final route, and we are not necessarily satisfied with it,” he said.

Last month, Harms asked Texel to amend the final order to better reflect Fish and Wildlife’s position. Texel said he is studying the request, but it’s a matter for Game and Parks and Fish and Wildlife to resolve.

“We go by the statute,” Texel said. “We are only required to consult with the commission. We did not say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was OK with the final route.”

Michelle Koch, environmental analyst supervisor for Game and Parks, said she can’t speak for the Wildlife Service or the Power Review Board and had no role in writing the final order.

“That (commission’s) letter is strictly from me. It doesn’t speak on behalf of the (Wildlife) Service. It does not speak for the service at all,” Koch said.

Consultation meetings were held with NPPD and Wildlife Service, she said, but Game and Parks goes through a slightly different process than the federal agency to address environmental issues.

“I don’t think that there is a disconnect regarding the overall concern for listed species because in our letter we acknowledge that there could be potential impact on the American burying beetle,” Koch said.

Birdwood Creek

On the western edge of the R-Project, near North Platte, bald eagles nest at Birdwood Creek. So do large flocks of trumpeter swans, geese and ducks.

In November, whooping cranes were spotted there.

The R-Project will run about a mile west of the spring-fed creek that flows year-round, and then cross it on its northern edge.

“I think it would be tragic to bring the power line through this area,” said rancher Mike Kelly of North Platte. “Birdwood Creek is special. It needs to be protected.”

NPPD’s Kent, who visited Birdwood Creek last summer at the invitation of landowners, said the utility examined all alternative routes suggested by them and by Harms of Wildlife Service.

“Neither alternative worked for us,” he said.

Moving the route would introduce a whole new set of issues, Kent said, including reconfiguring a substation near Gerald Gentleman Station, the airport at North Platte and more river crossings.

The ranchers counter that their suggested routes would have less of an environmental impact and would give the utility better access to build and maintain the line, saving NPPD and ratepayers money.

Bury the line

NPPD plans to use diverters to keep birds from flying into lines and towers, but Harms doesn’t think that’s a good solution in places like Birdwood Creek.

He said the diverters are effective 60 to 70 percent of the time, less when visibility is poor.

“Birds collide with lines at night when they can’t see them and take avoidance measures,” Harms said.

He has recommended NPPD bury the transmission line near Birdwood Creek.

Rancher James Fleecs, who lives near Sutherland, agrees. The stream is a bird magnet year-round, he said. In fact, he spotted a flock of 70 trumpeter swans in January.

“If there was ever a place for a line to be buried, it would be Birdwood Creek,” Harms said.

According to NPPD’s Becker, the cost of burying transmission lines could be six to 10 times higher than overhead lines and construction would involve trenching, which could have an environmental impact. And problems would require digging up the line to make repairs.

Harms said the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the total population of trumpeter swans in Nebraska at 600 to 700. As many as 20 percent of those use Birdwood Creek.

Game and Parks is well aware of the importance of Birdwood Creek and has expressed its concern, Koch said, but, again, it lacks authority to tell NPPD where to put its line.

“We only have regulatory authority over endangered and threatened species,” she said. “Swans are not listed as endangered or threatened.”

Ranches between North Platte and Sutherland say they are not against the transmission line project or using it to develop the state’s renewable energy resources to benefit Nebraskans. But they do believe NPPD has alternatives that would better serve it and the state.

“I’m not against wind energy, but put (the line) in the right spot,” said North Platte rancher Kelly. “Put it in fragmented areas — not in the Sandhills.”