If the United States is to make a transition to clean energy, it will need to build many more transmission lines—the thick wires that deliver power from rural areas, where there’s enough open space for wind and solar, to cities where the most power is consumed.
But the process of building those lines is likely to be fraught with conflict and delays, because people in rural and suburban communities often don’t want to see wires and tall metal towers in their backyards.
Clean energy advocates argue that power companies should do more to understand public opposition and how to best interact with power line opponents. They suggest that one way to begin is to examine the intense battle over an interstate powerline in U.S history, which was fought across rural Minnesota during much of the 1970s.
The arguments in that fight—over a 436-mile power line carrying power from a coal plant in central North Dakota to the suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul—started out with lawyers sitting around tables in government boardrooms but ended with protesters in frozen fields carrying rifles and baseball bats.
The Cooperative Power Association, now Great River Energy developed the power line. They recently sold the coal plant and the line, as well as the line, to Rainbow Energy Marketing in North Dakota.
People who were most closely involved in the 1970s protests believe that their past provides valuable lessons about how and when to build the projects needed for the energy transformation.
Minnesota’s corporate leaders and government leaders learned from their mistakes over the years. Some of these same people were involved with transmission projects in the 2000s, which experts claim is a national example of how to successfully work together with the public.
One of the lessons learned was that power companies should engage the public early on and be open to constructive criticism.
“You don’t ask for public opinion if you’re not going to listen,” said Will Kaul, who retired in 2017 as a vice president after a career with Great River Energy and its predecessor, Cooperative Power Association.
It is important that power line opponents feel confident that the process will be fair. George Crocker was an environmental advocate and was one of those who led the 1970s protest movement. He said that much of the anger stemmed from the perception that big corporations and the government had made their minds up and that any discussion was a showpiece.
To be able to support a grid that runs mostly on renewable energy, the United States needs to double, triple or even quadruple it’s transmission capacity, according to several recent studies. One of these studies, the Net Zero America report from Princeton University, estimated that the country would need new transmission lines worth $360 billion to $390 billion by 2030 in order to meet climate goals.
“We have this opportunity as a nation to tap into the best resources, but we need transmission to do that,” said Rob Gramlich, president of Grid Strategies, a consulting firm that focuses on transmission. He said that the best resources are solar and wind from the areas of the country with the most sunshine and wind.
The Biden Administration hopes to spark a construction boom by increasing federal incentives for the lines. This includes $5 billion in the recently-signed infrastructure bill and proposals for more. The bill includes an expansion in federal authority to approve transmission project approvals in cases where states are obstructing the process.
However, transmission line proposals are still in trouble, such as New England Clean Energy Connect which was stopped last month by Maine voters following years of planning and some construction.
While power companies may be able to reduce conflict by installing transmission lines along existing corridors (e.g., along highways or railroads), these options can be more costly and difficult. Another way to ease tensions is to set compensation levels for farmland so high that residents have little doubt that they’re getting a fair deal. However, this increases the overall cost of the project.
Because of the urgency of climate change, companies must find a way for communities to support them, said Michael Noble, executive Director of Fresh Energy, a Minnesota-based environmental advocacy group.
“It’s in everyone’s interest to learn the lessons of the ’70s,” he said, referring to the power line conflict in his state, “so new transmission can be sited and routed with broad support from the public and the communities most impacted by it.”
Poorly made decisions that cannot be undone
1973 saw leaders from the Cooperative Power Association (now the United Power Association) decide to move forward with a plan for a 1,100-megawatt, coal-fired power station in North Dakota. Also, a power line was to carry the electricity. These two cooperatives supplied power to rural utilities in Minnesota.
The companies remained focused on the design and financing of the project, but they did not let the public know about it, even those who might be interested in the project.
Jim Nelson was one of them. He grew up in Elbow Lake, Minnesota, and left his family’s farm to study to be an engineer. He earned two degrees and worked for a defense contractor. But he missed his family and decided to return home while he was still in the 20s.
“I missed being able to look out the window and see for a mile without any buildings,” he said in an interview from his farm. His hair is now white and he suffers from a stroke-related tremor.
Nelson attended a local government meeting in 1974 about a proposed powerline. He was shocked to see that the proposed route passed almost through his home. He became frustrated at the lack of publicity by the power companies and decided to inform his neighbors. He became an organizer and a spokesperson as opposition grew.
Nelson and other opponents tried to persuade local officials to modify their plans.
The power companies were skilled at putting pressure on state and local governments to get what their way. In 1975, the companies announced they were ending negotiations with the counties. Instead, they would apply for permits through the Minnesota Environmental Quality Council. This relatively new state panel has the power of issuing permits that would override the county’s decisions.
Opponents hired lawyers to draft testimony and continued their fight through state proceedings. They found they were not at home in a debate that had moved from local concerns to a parsing state energy and environmental regulations.
The construction permit was issued by the state commission on June 3, 1976. The power companies had won. But the fight was not over.
Ronnie Brooks served as Minnesota Governor’s staff. Rudy Perpich when he took office in 1976, and she became Perpich’s point person on the power line conflict.
One of the roots of the problem, she said, was that the power companies did not spend enough time and money early in the process to thoroughly explore their options and get to know the people along the line’s potential routes. The problem was made worse by the fact that the state panel was not designed to assess the types of concerns being raised by opponents but to answer technical questions regarding the necessity of the plant.
“There are decisions that are made poorly and cannot be unmade because the processes by which they are made are flawed, and the damage or impact they have is irreversible,” Brooks said.
A Shift to Civil Disobedience
The opposition to the power lines was unable to get what it wanted through the government process and turned to civil disobedience.
Less than a week after the state’s decision, surveyors drove to a field in Stearns County to do work to prepare for construction. Virgil Fuchs was the owner of the land and drove his tractor towards surveyors. He also smashed one their tripods. He then rammed his tractor into the back of one of the surveyors’ pickup trucks.
“Don’t ask me why I did it,” he said. “I supposed a guy would think it was to bring to the public’s eye what was going on out here.”
His comments were in the 1981 book “Powerline: The First Battle of America’s Energy War,” by Paul Wellstone and Barry M. Casper, about the power line protests. Before Wellstone’s political career took him to the U.S. Senate as a politician, his co-authors were Carleton College faculty.
Fuchs’ actions helped to inspire other opponents.
Soon after, George Crocker joined in the fight. Crocker, a Minneapolis hippie who was deeply involved in the anti-Vietnam War Movement, was also a member of the fight. He was a truck driver for food co-ops and became familiar with the power line conflict.
“The farmers were saying, ‘Crocker, get on the bus. You’re coming back with us,’” he said, in an interview at his home in Lake Elmo, east of St. Paul.
With Crocker’s encouragement, the protesters used nonviolent tactics, like parking their vehicles to form roadblocks that stopped workers from being able to pass, or laying thick piles of manure in places where workers needed to drive or walk. However, the demonstrators appeared intimidating and carried baseball bats and rifles as well as making verbal threats at workers.
Lowry, Minnesota is a small community in Pope County that was transformed into a gathering point for the protesters. It attracted people from Minneapolis-St. Paul as well as Native American activists from across the Midwest, including leaders from American Indian Movement.
By 1977, the conflict had settled into a stalemate, in which farmers were impeding the energy companies’ ability to do their work and the state government was refusing the companies’ demands for the state to forcibly disperse the protesters.
Flowers and Home-Baked Cookies
The deep freeze of Minnesota winter ended the stalemate. Perpich ordered 215 of the state’s 504 state troopers to Pope County.
Jan. 9, 1978, protesters marched in Lowry wearing their warmest winter clothes and carrying American flags. National news cameras captured the images while a plane and state patrol helicopter flew overhead.
The farmers approached the troopers and offered them each a plastic carnation. They also gave them hot coffee and homemade cookies. They had decided as a group to respond to the state’s show of force with a gesture of nonviolence.
The daily protests grew in size after that. Some leaders of the movement wondered if they had miscalculated by not creating enough of a disturbance to provoke a violent response from police, because the public seemed to be losing interest, according to Wellstone and Casper’s book.
Some farmers went home. The national media returned home. Construction of the line progressed.
A few of the line’s opponents turned increasingly to vandalism, using their equipment to topple the giant towers that had been installed to hold the line.
A poll conducted by the Minneapolis Tribune in April 1978 asked Minnesotans their opinions on the power line. 63 percent of respondents said they preferred the farmers to the power companies. It was clear that the line would soon be complete, and it was.
Lessons for the Future
Some people who were close to the protests said that 40 years later, understanding these events can help to reduce conflict as companies attempt to build the lines for clean energy transition.
Others say the topic is still so painful that they don’t want to talk about it as if it were some academic exercise.
Jim Nelson stated that he feels like he let people down because he failed to block the line. Now, he can see the line towering above his property every time that he goes down his long driveway in order to get his mail.
“The land was a sacred trust,” he said. “I failed to preserve it.”
Will Kaul (retired Great River Energy executive) said he was deeply affected about the power line protests. He spent much of his professional career trying to make sure that power companies and government can be more sensitive and compassionate when making major construction decisions.
He claimed that he recalls tensions in the late 1970s, early 1980s regarding the power line and the subsequent projects. He was the victim of implicit and explicit threats but was never physically attacked.
Kaul played a key role in lobbying to change the state law governing power projects approval. The law states that if a power project crosses farmland, the owner can ask the state to buy the entire farm at fair-market value. Kaul believes that this helped to reduce tensions.
He said he is proud of the process behind the CapX2020 projects in the 2000s, in which several power companies, including Great River, worked together with the regional grid operator to build five transmission lines to support the grid in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin—the first major projects of this type in Minnesota since the 1970s. He considers this a success because it was partly a result of the lessons learned from earlier challenges.
Priti Patel, vice president of transmission for Great River, who began her career as an energy executive long after the protests, said the uprising in the 1970s showed “the need to ensure the voices of rural and local communities are included in the broader energy discussion.”
She stated that Great River had learned from this experience and has changed the way it works together with residents to decide on power line routes. CapX2020 is an example of inclusive transmission planning.
The CapX2020 initiative was part of a larger Midwest project called the Multi-Value Projects or MVPs. This initiative was overseen by the grid operator and eventually led to more then a dozen projects being constructed. Rob Gramlich, the transmission consultant, said those projects were a national model and a “shining example of how to do transmission planning right.”
These projects were successful partly because they were jointly planned and executed by companies who had the resources to fully explore their options and interact directly with the public.
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However, this ability to avoid controversy has not been the norm, especially recently when several high-profile project have been slow to move ahead. Gramlich was co-author of the report, which lists 22 projects that are ready for construction once they have received regulatory approvals. It includes several projects that have been delayed due to public opposition, including Grain Belt express, which would run from Missouri through Indiana.
Crocker was a leader in the power line protests and then he became a co-founder for an environmental nonprofit. He didn’t support CapX2020, but he also didn’t organize grassroots opposition to it.
“The power companies did a better job of learning how to not make enemies,” he said about the success of CapX2020.
Crocker believes that the electricity system should be less centralized. He said that local renewable energy should play a greater role and that there should be less dependence on long distance transport of large amounts of power. However, he acknowledged that more transmission lines were needed.
Kaul and Crocker are now in agreement on many of the major energy issues facing the country. They both agree that the 1970s conflict over the power line was largely due to mistakes made by the government and companies that could have been avoided.
The 1970s opposition to the line was so intense that it helped cement the idea that building transmission lines is a difficult and costly task.
But now, with the stakes so high as companies try to build lines to deliver renewable energy and fight climate change, developers can’t afford to continue to make the same errors in dealing with the public, said Noble of Fresh Energy.
“Transmission needs to be built at the speed and scale of the climate problem,” he said.
Source: Inside Climate News