Wind energy has become a booming business in Kansas in recent years.
In parts of central and western Kansas that were once used only for farming and grazing, the landscape is now dotted with huge towers holding up giant turbines that spin gracefully in the prairie wind, converting the movement of the atmosphere into clean electrical energy that powers cities in the eastern part of the state.
That's been an economic boon for some landowners, who now continue to farm and graze the land, but who also receive payment for the easements they grant utility companies for placing the windmills on their property.
But within the next few years, the wind industry is scheduled to take another leap forward in a way that has some Kansas farmers and landowners upset.
In November, the Kansas Corporation Commission granted approval for the Texas-based Clean Line Energy Partners to build the Grain Belt Express transmission line, a high-voltage direct current line across more than 750 miles of the central United States, from southwest Kansas, across Missouri and Illinois, and into Indiana to sell Kansas-produced wind energy to utility companies in much of the eastern United States.
“The exciting thing about this project is, as big as Kansas has been with wind, it's kind of just scratching the surface with its potential,” said Mark Lawlor, a spokesman for Clean Line. “We can put more electricity on this line than is being generated today.”
Last year, as it was applying for KCC approval, Clean Line held town hall meetings in communities along the proposed route. In most places, the idea was warmly received by landowners who would be paid for the easements across their land.
But that wasn't the case in Marysville, the county seat of Marshall County in north-central Kansas, where the project ran into organized opposition.
In February, according to local news reports, about 250 people turned out for the public meeting, including Richard Strathman, a cattle farmer and member of the impromptu group CLEANER - the Coalition for Landowners, the Environment and Natural Resources.
“There was great opposition, let's put it that way,” Strathman said recalling that meeting. “People were a little testy without a doubt because nobody wants this thing. Besides it being ugly, and the health effects, it's how it's going to devalue your property. Would you want to buy next to me and build a new house with this thing staring at you every day?”
The lines that Clean Line wants to build would carry DC current, as opposed to the AC current that is standard in households and businesses. According to some research, one of the possible effects of being near such a line is an occasional static electricity spark between people or animals and bushes, grass or other vegetation. But that is thought to be less of an issue under DC lines than AC lines.
Still, Strathman said, “We're very concerned about the health of our animals and how the stray voltage will affect them. ... Imagine if you were an animal and had to stand out there and periodically throughout the day you got a shock like that.”
Despite the protests from Marshall County landowners, the KCC unanimously approved Clear Line's proposal Nov. 7. That includes giving Clear Line the power of eminent domain to acquire title and easements to land it needs for the project.
Furthermore, under a Kansas law passed in 2001, the project will be exempt from all property taxes for the first 10 years, although Clean Line says it will make payments to the counties along the route of $750 per mile to compensate for road work and other disruptions the construction project will cause.
Now, Clean Line is soliciting information from utilities and wind generating firms to find out if enough new wind farms can be built to put enough power on the line to justify the project.
But before any construction can begin, Clean Line still needs regulatory approval from Missouri and Illinois. Lawlor said Indiana has already granted approval. The company plans to file for approval in Missouri later this year, with a goal of making the line operational by 2018.
Strathman, however, said his group hopes to work with Missouri landowners to block it there.
“We're hoping that they get better organized than we were because they've had more time working on it,” he said. “And if they don't, yes, we are kind of coming to the realization that if it happens, that's why we're trying to get eminent domain lawyers and we're going to fight it to the end.”