Controversial R-Line project considered for the Nebraska Sandhills area
November 30, 2017
The fate of the controversial R-Line project is now in the hands of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency will now take all factors into consideration, including an environmental impact statement, and determine whether to issue the Nebraska Public Power District an Incidental Take Permit for the American burying beetle, so they can begin construction next spring.
The controversy centers around the construction of a 225-mile long transmission line that will start at the NPPD's Gerald Gentleman's Station near Sutherland to a new substation that would be built next to an existing substation east of Thedford. From there, the 345,000 volt transmission line will be built east into Holt County, where it will connect to a new second substation.
According to Tom Kent, vice president and chief operating officer for NPPD, the project is necessary for the future. The R-project came out of the regional planning process that NPPD participates in. The southwest power pool, which is a regional transmission organization, makes transmission planning for a 14-state region, which includes Nebraska. "They work with utilities like NPPD to plan the transmission systems, and make sure the system can meet all the reliability expectations and perform economically into the future," Kent said.
The project was identified in 2012 as part of a 10-year transmission plan. Kent said it became obvious after the hot and dry summer in 2012, that the existing line wasn't capable of providing reliable service into the future. "We had a situation where the load from irrigation (wells) in north central Nebraska couldn't get the energy delivered across the existing transmission system," he said. "We have plenty of generation capability, but the energy in the transmission system was limited in post contingent condition. This means, even in real time, we were delivering the energy, but we were facing a situation that if we lost a piece of the transmission system from something like a storm or equipment failure, it could cause what is called a cascading outage, which would cause a widespread power outage," he said.
FOCUS ON RELIABILITY
If a new transmission line is constructed, Kent said it will make the electricity more reliable. "The reliability needed to strengthen the transmission system was one of the big drivers for this project," he said. The second was to reduce congestion on the transmission system. Kent compared it to a highway that is not big enough to accommodate all the cars, and traffic gets backed up. "This line will reduce congestion, giving us another path to move electricity across the state," he said. The third factor Kent mentioned is enabling the future development of renewable resources, like wind and solar energy. "This transmission line would add that capability, if it's desired by the area or its residents," he said, admitting it is a controversial subject. "Even if no renewable resources are ever built, we still need this transmission project. Even though that was one of the three reasons for the project when it was identified, its really not high in the priority of importance," he notes.
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It was this third factor that lead to the formation of the group Preserve the Sandhills, which has taken a stance against this project. Craig Anderson, who is a spokesman for the group, says the R-Line project threatens the fragile ecosystem and wildlife in the Nebraska Sandhills. "The problem we see is a high-voltage transmission line will be built right through the heart of the Sandhills," he said. "This project is going to be very disruptive to the ecosystem. We are talking about 890 high voltage transmission line towers being built through the Sandhills."
Anderson said his group worries about damage to the aquifer from the deep screws that will likely dip into it. "The Sandhills sits on top of the largest fresh-water aquifer in the U.S.," he said. "Each of these towers has four legs, and each leg requires four 40-foot-long bolts or screws to attach them to the ground. In most of the Sandhills, the water table is only 30 feet or less below the surface. We know a lot of these screws will penetrate into the aquifer."
"We are not against the high-voltage transmission lines," he said. "We're not anti-electricity. What bothers us is there are existing corridors further to the south, that would not go through the Sandhills, where they could actually locate these transmission lines. Initially, that is where they said they were going to do it. But, in 2012, the NPPD determined that their chief purpose of moving this route to the north was to utilize the possibility of wind energy in the future," he said.
Another concern is the probability of eminent domain and the seizure of land by NPPD because some landowners don't want this project on their property. "It is a concern that the property rights of people who will have their land taken by NPPD, doesn't fit with how we do business in the Sandhills," Anderson said.
However, Mark Becker, supervisor of corporate media and media services for NPPD, explains: "No land is being taken, other than where a structure is located. Landowners are being asked to sign an easement agreement that allows NPPD to construct, operate and maintain the power line. The only thing that we restrict from happening is building a structure of some sort or piling hay bales under the power. They still own the land. They can graze cattle under the line. They can actually grow crops. Landowners are compensated for the land under the line. Any damage done during construction, operation or maintenance is the responsibility of NPPD, and will be repaired and managed, no matter the length of time it takes for it return to normal."
Anderson says there are also concerns with the proposed building of over 100 miles of roads so the new lines can be maintained. The project also calls for land pads and holding areas to be constructed every 20 miles to accommodate the special helicopters that will have to erect the towers, Anderson adds.
But Becker says, "No roads are being planned to be constructed. The NPPD, and its contractor, will use existing roads and paths."
"The problem with the Sandhills is we don't have very much dirt, therefore the sand and grass are very fragile," Anderson says. "Whenever you build in the Sandhills and disrupt the grassland, getting grass to regrow is difficult to impossible. You can still see trails created by the buffalo 100 years ago that look as fresh today, as the day they were made."
"We have repaired blowouts in the Sandhills that have been coming close to existing structures," Becker says. "In one case, we leveled an area in support of the Keystone Pipeline for a sub-station. The route was changed, and was no longer needed. We successfully restored the land near Ericson and ended up selling the land," he adds.
"We also have a lot of endangered species that live in the Sandhills, and a lot of migratory birds, some of which are endangered," Anderson said. "We see nothing but trouble coming from this."
However, Kent said the NPPD has drafted restoration plans to address the fragile land restoration, as well as migratory bird plans. All of these plans are available for public comment through the FWS.
Both sides have said they have concerns about the American burying beetle, which is listed as a protected species under the federal endangered species act. "It is a tiny little black and red beetle that takes organic and decaying matter, and buries it in the ground," Anderson said. "It is one of the primary ways we get dirt in the sand." The FWS have indicated a certain percentage of these beetles could be killed through the construction phase of this project.
"The R-project is going through the Sandhills, and it is a sensitive area and home to the American burying beetle. Because of that, we believe, over the life of this project, we could do something that could impact these beetles," Kent said. "However, there is a process under the endangered species act where an entity doing a project can get permission to incidentally take or harm that endangered species, as long as they meet criteria to ensure the species is protected. We're in the middle of that process. We drafted a habitat conservation plan showing how we will manage the project and protect that species," he said.