Balance of Power and Environment in the Sandhills

May 23, 2014, 6:30 a.m. ·

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Nebraska Public Power District says Nebraska needs a new power line, but the proposed path cuts right through the heart of the Sandhills. Some landowners in the area say the power line isn’t needed, and poses unnecessary risks to the fragile ecosystem of the area.

Dave Hutchinson’s 5000-acre ranch is located in north central Nebraska, in the middle of the vast and scenic Sandhills region.

As he hopped on his ATV, Hutchinson said he doesn’t allow trucks or heavy machinery on his land, because the Sandhills are fragile and easily damaged.

“We just don’t want to mess it up through bad conservation measures,” Hutchinson said.

Dave Hutchinson, owner of Hutchinson Buffalo Ranch near Rose, is a staunch opponent of the R-Project. Hutchinson says he is critical of NPPD's methods and questions whether NPPD has the proper skills to build in the Sandhills without damaging the environment. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

After about 15 minutes of searching, Hutchinson found the 250 animals that make up his buffalo herd. He explained the benefits of eating buffalo meat over beef, and it was obvious he has a deep admiration for the animals.

“They’re the only mammal that faces the storm. They’ll face the storm if it’s snowing, the drifts will always be behind them, and then they’ll never suffocate,” he explained.

Throughout his life, Hutchinson has worked to establish an eco-friendly lifestyle on his ranch, but he said he’s now facing a storm of his own. His property sits in a corridor where the Nebraska Public Power District wants to build a new power line.

“You can get on one of these high hills, and we can see 75 miles in any direction. You don’t see a bunch of clutter, you don’t see buildings and you don’t see power lines. You see the Sandhills and its beauty and we need to keep it that way,” Hutchinson said.

Known as the R-Project, the 220-mile line will run from the Gerald Gentleman power station near Sutherland, north to Thedford, and then east to tie into an existing transmission line. NPPD said a new substation will also need to be built in Holt, Antelope, or Wheeler County.

While no exact path of the transmission line has been determined, NPPD has identified a preferred route and several route alternatives. NPPD said a final decision on where to put the new lines will not be made until after a public hearing in the fall. (Image courtesy of NPPD)

NPPD said it will most likely use two different pole structures for the R-Project. The lattice tower, seen on the left in the above image, will be used in remote areas and, in some instances, installed using helicopters. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

The R-Project is part of the Southwestern Power Pool’s 10-year plan. NPPD joined the power pool in 2009. It’s a conglomerate of electricity providers from nine states that work together and share resources. Because of that relationship, NPPD will pay just seven percent of the R-Project’s $328 million price tag.

According to NPPD, the benefits of the project are three-fold: enhance reliability, reduce congestion on existing lines, and eventually provide an outlet for wind farms to get electricity onto the grid.

Terry Warth, NPPD’s manager of advocacy group relations, said Nebraska’s weather patterns also played a role in designing the new path, since severe storms often wreak havoc on the electrical grid.

“That’s exactly what happened in our ice storms in 2006 and 2007. Our transmission system was decimated in the south central part of the state by ice. We had trouble getting power to the eastern side of the state, because our transmission system was knocked down,” Warth said.

By having a backup power line in a separate location, NPPD said the electrical grid will be less vulnerable to disruption.

NPPD held three open houses earlier this month, where landowners were told about the R-Project and asked for their input about the best place to put poles.

“The landowners that are there are probably some of the best experts around, and so we hope to partner with the landowners also to learn how we can best restore and monitor and take care of any damages that might come out of the construction of the line,” said Joe Citta, NPPD's corporate environmental manager.

If the grass covering the hills is damaged, it could expose the soil underneath, causing what’s known as a blowout, which could take decades to repair.

As the name implies, the Nebraska Sandhills region is made up of a series of sand dunes, covered with grass. If the vegetation is damaged, the soil underneath is exposed. Wind, rain, and other factors can further damage the area and upset the balance of the natural environment. Blowouts, areas where exposed sand causes the hill to literally blow away, could take years to repair. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

Alan Beiermann, the land management manager for NPPD, said in addition to using lighter trucks and helicopters to install poles, NPPD might also use what are known as helical piers for the foundations of those power poles.

“They’re a pipe that’s different sizes, maybe 6-8 inches, with basically a screw at the bottom like an auger. We basically just turn those into the soil, screw them down in there, and then we weld a plate on top of those pipes and set the foundation on top of that. And that saves us from having to run concrete trucks through the Sandhills,” Beiermann said.

NPPD said it is also working with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and U.S Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure no endangered species will be negatively affected by the R-Project.

But some critics of the R-Project said NPPD shouldn’t be going through the Sandhills in the first place.

Skylar Loeffler’s ranch is in the proposed path of the R-Project. She said given the environmental concerns, NPPD should build the new 345,000 volt line next to existing, lower volt lines.

“I know that in Colorado, where I’m from, they would have a 345 running right along a little local power line, within 60 feet of each other. I don’t understand why they can’t do that here and have less disruption,” Loeffler said.

According to NPPD, there isn’t enough space to build the R-Project next to existing lines and operate safely. Also, having too many power lines in the same vicinity means one rogue gust of wind could take out multiple lines.

“As you lose lines, it compromises the ability to deliver power to our customers," NPPD's Beiermann said. "By adding another line and making connections to different parts of your system, it enhances our ability to deliver good reliable service to our customers.”

Back on the Hutchinson Buffalo Ranch, Dave Hutchinson said the need to deliver reliable service to customers should not outweigh the need to protect the environment.

“Take [the line] up a highway. Take it down a railroad right-of-way. Stay away from the Sandhills. [NPPD doesn’t] have to do that. They say ‘we’ve never done it but we can do it’. Well, I don’t believe that,” Hutchinson said.

But whether Hutchinson believes NPPD can build the R-project in a responsible way may not matter. According to NPPD’s Mark Becker, even if they didn’t build the line, Southwestern Power Pool would. Becker said at least with NPPD handling the project, landowners get a say in the process.