Power play: Project meant to move power through Nebraska Sandhills, across US stalls – for 12 years

Feb. 23, 2024, 9 a.m. ·

Energy Photo 1.JPG
Lemoyne Dailey removes twine from a hay bale for heifers Feb. 13, 2024, at his ranch in Thomas County. Dailey uses hay to supplement his cattle's natural grass diet on his Sandhills ranch. He and some other landowners have thus far refused to let the Nebraska Public Power District build a long-proposed transmission line across their land, citing environmental concerns and questioning the project’s tie to wind energy. The project’s proponents say the line will move power more efficiently across Nebraska and nearby states, making rolling blackouts and other problems less likely. Photo by Andrew Bottrell for the Flatwater Free Press

Rancher Lemoyne Dailey says he’s careful about how he “makes his footprints” when he works on his land near Thedford.

The rolling Sandhills are fragile, Dailey said, the grasses and sands easily torn up and tough to restore.

Over the past decade, Dailey’s been fielding visits from utility workers surveying his land, planning a power transmission route and asking for a signature on the dotted line.

He’s one of a group of Sandhills landowners steadfastly refusing to sign.

“You don't know the amount of damage you're going to do to this country, putting in a project like the R line,” Dailey said.

The rancher is speaking of the Nebraska Public Power District’s R-Project, a controversial 345,000-volt transmission line that would stretch 226 miles from Sutherland past Thedford.

The line, first proposed in 2012, is meant to deliver power across the country and make the U.S. electrical grid more reliable.

But 12 years later, not one mile of the R-Project has been built. Instead, the project has faced a wall of opposition from an array of foes: environmental groups, conservative state senators, Native tribes and ranchers like Dailey.

Building demand

Southwest Power Pool, a regional power regulator, directed NPPD in 2012 to build a new high-voltage transmission line through central Nebraska.

A planning study listed the date for when the line would need to be built to meet growing American energy demand: Jan. 1, 2018.

Early construction on the line instead started in June 2019 after the project, which will impact several endangered Sandhills species, received a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Less than a month later, the project ground to a halt when a group of opponents filed a lawsuit.

The delays have forced NPPD to use diesel generators to meet demand in north-central Nebraska during the past three summers, NPPD has said. The Southwest Power Pool, which regulates power in 14 states, also had to use higher-cost methods to generate power in the region.

The grid operates like an interstate highway system, moving large amounts of power long distances, said Mike Herzog, founder of Resilient Electric Analytics. Weaknesses in one state can impact others, leading to situations like SPP using rolling blackouts to manage power demand during the 2021 Texas freeze.

The R line is also important, planners and advocates say, because its planned route stretches through eight Nebraska counties where future wind energy projects could generate more power to transmit along the line and through the state and region.

“In Western Nebraska it's windy, there’s wide open spaces,” Herzog said. “Here’s this huge potential for renewable energy in a space where the population centers aren’t.”

Wind projects are queued up and ready to build and connect to the high-voltage transmission line, Herzog said.

“The Service has identified nine renewable energy projects that are reasonably foreseeable and are related to the R-Project (either through interconnection or contingency on R-Project for overall network upgrade),” FWS spokeswoman Adriana Zorrilla said in an email.

But new wind turbines are seen as a negative outcome for many R-Project opponents, who fear the line will bring more disruption in the Sandhills.

“The concern is that future wind energy development will compound the damage done by the line itself,” said Brent Steffen, a Sandhills landowner.

Fickle cranes, rugged terrain

Opponents of the R-Project are concerned about the impact that constructing and maintaining the large line will have on the Sandhills’ unique terrain and wildlife.

After the proposed line leaves the substation east of Thedford, it will go straight east through rugged, isolated ground, Steffen said.

NPPD’s permit focuses primarily on the threatened American burying beetle, which will be harmed during construction. Several other endangered plant and animal species call the Sandhills home.

Plants in the Sandhills are fragile and have adapted specifically to thrive there, said Tony Baker, legislative aide for Sen. Tom Brewer, who represents the region.

“The ranchers understand how to take care of that ground,” Baker said. “And they know what will happen if you come in there with all this heavy equipment to build 120 miles of power line, right through the most virgin, beautiful part of the Sandhills we've got in Nebraska.”

The R-Project will cross the migration corridor of endangered whooping cranes around the Platte River and Sandhills wetlands, said Kristal Stoner, executive director of Audubon Great Plains, which supported the lawsuit. Less than 550 whooping cranes now exist in the wild, and could strike the steel structures and die.

“We have to be very cautious about the decisions we make on the landscape so that we don't put things out there that are going to cause harm to these birds,” Stoner said.

In a revised plan, NPPD committed to marking the entire R-Project with bird flight diverters to reduce the strike risk, and also adding diverters to 124 miles of existing transmission lines.

NPPD also reassessed the amount of land that will be temporarily disturbed by construction, doubling the number of impacted acres. It promised to buy and protect 557 acres of suitable American burying beetle habitat to offset any damage.

Marks of history

Nebraska’s Sandhills still hold several markers of the region’s history. There are archaeological sites, tribal burial grounds and wagon ruts from the Oregon and Mormon trails near the proposed line.

In its newly released plans, NPPD added a mile to the line in order to send the proposed route around O’Fallon’s Bluff, a National Register of Historic Places site significant to the westbound trails and the Pony Express.

By law, FWS is required to review historic and culturally significant sites that the project might impact, which includes consulting with tribes.

FWS sent letters to 19 tribes about the project between 2014 and 2018. Only two responded, according to the project’s original 2018 Final Environmental Impact Statement.

No letter reached Ione Quigley at the Rosebud Sioux’s tribal historic preservation office. Quigley said she found out about the project when a group of Sandhills landowners reached out in 2021.

“I've been quite busy here trying to get a hold of some of the other tribes and letting them know that they need to wake up to this,” Quigley said.

The Rosebud Sioux tribe is worried the project hasn’t focused on potential impacts to the Ogallala Aquifer, with plans in place to drill 40 feet down during construction.

“When it's done, then people will see what an impact it will have for future generations, and not only for the two legged people but for the four legged, the winged ones, the crawlers,” Quigley said. “It will have an impact on all of life.”

Mark Porath, FWS Nebraska ecological field office supervisor, joined the project in recent years and expanded its outreach to 31 tribes. FWS has sent more follow-ups, Porath said, reaching out to cultural resource officers and tribal historic preservationists like Quigley.

“Quite honestly, we're leaning on a lot of their knowledge that they have that we don't have,” Porath said. “So that's an expertise that we don't have, but we think it's important that needs to be incorporated.”

FWS is working now on a cultural resources inventory report, Porath said, detailing the potentially impacted historical sites and including input from tribes and other organizations like History Nebraska.

Continuing resistance

A power line already crosses Dailey’s Sandhills ranch. NPPD came to do maintenance on a tower on one of his steep sand hills a few years ago.

Dailey told the workers to drive around the hill to avoid causing damage. When they came to do the work, Dailey said, the technicians didn’t listen.

“They climbed the hill and just tore up the side of that hill really bad,” Dailey said.

NPPD offered to pay him for any damage, but Dailey didn’t want their money. He asked them to come out and restore it themselves, so they would understand how the R-Project might hurt the Sandhills.

Dailey and Steffen continue to refuse to sign the paperwork that would allow NPPD to build the line on their land.

“I'm just hoping and praying that something else comes up and stops them and they just abandon it,” Dailey said.

Steffen thinks that if the updated permit gets approved, the R-Project is likely to be challenged again in federal court.

The R-Project is 12 years old now, six years past its original completion date.

The fight appears far from over.

“Even if they … don't get challenged in federal court again … they're now looking at eight or nine years down the road from their initial planning and millions of dollars in increased expenditure to do it,” Steffen said.

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