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Transmitting Wind Power To Customers Is A Quixotic Challenge


Let's talk about wind power next. More and more wind turbines are creating clean electricity for American homes and businesses. But as Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, generating wind power is one thing; getting it from remote wind farms to our electrical outlets is another.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Out in western Kansas, big wind turbines, like this one near Spearville, produce lots of electricity, hundreds of jobs and a fair amount of income for farmers like Kermit Froetschner.

KERMIT FROETSCHNER: It's been a boon for this area for sure. School districts, counties - we like them. We'd like to see some more.

MORRIS: A lot of people would. After all, wind turbines don't foul the atmosphere and generate electricity for less money than plants burning fossil fuels. Federal tax credits and mandates to cut pollution can make wind even more attractive. But Michael Skelly, president of Clean Line Energy Partners, says there's a problem.

MICHAEL SKELLY: There's tremendous wind energy in western Kansas - just a phenomenal resource. You can produce wind energy at a very low cost in western Kansas. The issue is that there's not that many people that live out there.

MORRIS: Utilities have built lots of new lines to connect wind farms to regional grids. Skelly wants to go a step further. He started Clean Line to build long, very high-voltage transmission lines from windy states to more populous ones. The company's seeking approval for several projects, including one that Skelly says would carry enough Kansas wind power to energize almost a million-and-a-half homes back East. But none of Clean Line's project proposals have so far been approved, thanks largely to people like Jennifer Gatrel.

JENNIFER GATREL: So here's our rooster. His name is Popeye because he has one eye (laughter).

MORRIS: Gatrel and her family on a hilltop overlooking their 500 acres of pasture and woodlands in rural northwest Missouri. They raise cattle, horses and a few pigs. And they cherish this place.

GATREL: This land is our retirement plan. It's our vacation destination. It's our workplace. It's our school. It's absolutely everything to us.

MORRIS: So Gatrel reacted strongly when Clean Line proposed running a high-voltage line right through the place. The company would pay for the land it used and extra for each tower installed. The Gatrels could still farm in the space between poles. But Gatrel says it's not worth the intrusion, any health worries or the eyesore. She says most folks around here feel the same.

GATREL: Within the rural communities, we see this as an invasion. Many of our members are military veterans. And we are planning this out like a war.

MORRIS: We're not talking about an armed standoff here. But Gatrel helped organize a statewide campaign to stop the Missouri Public Service Commission from giving Clean Line powers of eminent domain for the project - to compel land owners to go along.

GATREL: Eminent domain for private gain is wrong, and it goes against what it means to be an American.

MORRIS: State commissioners agreed and narrowly rejected the plan - not enough in it for Missouri, they said. Rob Gramlich, with the American Wind Energy Association, argues that state commissions have outsized influence on these projects.

ROB GRAMLICH: You may have a transmission line touching or affecting five states. Four of them may say, this is great, and it reduces our rates, and it gives us access to cleaner energy and cleans up our air. But one state can say, no, you know what? I don't want it, so you can't build it.

MORRIS: But Clean Line may have found a workaround - a 10-year-old act of Congress that would give the U.S. Department of Energy jurisdiction over new interstate transmission line projects. It's pursuing DOE approval for a power line proposed to run across Arkansas but hasn't taken that step yet in Missouri, where the company plans to refile its application with the state Public Service Commission - sweetening the deal with promises of low-cost, carbon-neutral power and lots of jobs. Gatrel and her allies are gearing up for another round. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris