One of the companies banking on Iowa’s wind energy industry is Clean Line Energy Partners, a Houston-based operation with plans to build five large-scale high voltage transmission lines in the country. As Iowa Public Radio’s Durrie Bouscaren reports, one of those lines would traverse Iowa, and it starts in the northwest corner of the state.
Standing on a farm in O’Brien County, it’s hard to imagine the converter station that would replace about 50 acres of Jay Hofland’s cornfields. If the project goes through, that’s where wind power from turbines nearby will be fed into a direct current, high voltage power line that’ll span 500 miles across the entire state—It’s called the Rock Island Clean Line. Hofland says it’s an economic boon for O’Brien County.
"I’m a fifth generation farmer here. And one thing we’ve seen is a decline in population," Hofland said.
The Rock Island Clean Line is a $2-billion project, and Hofland’s a big supporter of it. He kind of has to be—he’s about to live next door.
"This gives us a real opportunity for investment in our county, hopefully some more jobs, and for my sons who are eighteen and twenty to have an opportunity to live around here," Hofland said.
Not everyone in the line’s path agrees. Not all landowners like the idea of a 120-to 200 ft. transmission line going up on their property. The family who rents a home next to Hofland’s cornfield has been warned they’ll probably have to move in a couple years—they politely declined an interview.
Clean Line’s Regional Manager, Beth Conley, says the project will increase the capacity of Iowa’s wind energy industry, because it creates a way to deliver electricity to states further east.
"A number of those states have passed renewable portfolio standards, that will require them to have so much of their energy from clean or renewable sources, by--some as early as 2015," Conley said.
She adds that eastern states don’t have the capacity to create that wind locally—Iowa does.
"Because there’s not a lot of demand for energy up in northwest Iowa, and really, not a lot of demand in Iowa that’s not already being met," Conley said.
Conley says Clean Line would pay $7,000 in county taxes per mile of line—500 miles total.
Some landowners are supportive. Many people in O’Brien County have already leased some of their land to other wind energy projects, like a 218-turbine field funded by MidAmerican Energy, slated for completion in 2015. But others aren’t so keen.
Future neighbors of the line have already begun organizing an opposition group. Here at a meeting of the newly formed Preservation of Rural Iowa Alliance, Director Carolyn Sheridan holds court. She says one of her major sticking points about the line, is that it sends wind power out of state.
"We feel that a high voltage transmission line that is coming across Iowa should indeed benefit Iowans for their electrical consumption," Sheridan said. "We also feel that we should be listened to, that we should be able to have a say in what happens to property."
Sheridan says property owners need a voice here, because utility projects like Clean Line can be granted approval by the Iowa Utilities Board to seek eminent domain. If certain criteria are met, that means a landowner could be forced to sell an easement to Clean Line, and would be paid according to a recommendation from their county.
"We want to make sure it’s responsible," said Sheridan, who farms near Greenville. "We are concerned about unintended consequences."
In Illinois, where the Rock Island Clean Line would end, the opposition is even stronger—the state’s Farm Bureau formally opposed it last year.
A spokesperson for Clean Line said they want all land acquisition to be voluntary—that’s why they’ve begun negotiations long before their anticipated construction dates.
At least 78 people in four northwest Iowa counties have already filed objections to the Iowa Utilities Board, and the Board expects more when Clean Line opens negotiations in counties further east.
Darrel Dodge, who farms and raises cattle near Hartley, in O’Brien county, has festooned a roadside produce stand on his property with “Block the RICL” posters. He says the compensation Clean Line is offering isn’t worth the damage to his fields during construction.
"For one thing, it depreciates the value of the farm," Dodge said. "Farming around them is the pits… plus I’m not sure how healthy it is living directly under it."
Dodge says he’s worried about the Blue Herons that nest near his farm. Besides, Dodge says—northwest Iowa is no stranger to companies coming in to promise local jobs and tax revenue, and then not following through.
"They don’t see where this particular project is any benefit to Iowa. Or the people living here. It isn’t worth the hassle."
With a project scope that goes through 16 of Iowa’s 99 counties, Clean Line has a lot of landowners to convince. Daryl Haack, who farms in Primghar, has begun organizing O’Brien County farmers to negotiate with Clean Line.
"There will be more projects in this county. This area is going to be covered in windmills. If we can help make those easements fair, make those contracts fair, comparable," Haack said.
Haack is also a board member of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.
"The meat we raise, the cattle, the hogs… it’s not used in O’Brien county. It’s shipped where they need it. So what’s the difference when you do the same with electricity?" Haack said.
The contracts range in size, and Clean Line won’t disclose what they offer when negotiations are underway. But Clean Line’s presentation to the Illinois Commerce Commission included an example slide saying landowners were compensated about $8,000 per acre, plus a lump sum per structure on their property, depending on how big it was. They could also opt for smaller annual payments. But Haack says, even if a landowner says no, and all his neighbors say yes—Clean Line can still seek the right of eminent domain through condemnation proceedings.
"That’s the biggest concern I’ve heard. As soon as they mentioned condemnation, people got upset. But that’s the only way you can make a project like that work," Haack said.
As landowners in the northwest mull over selling an easement to Clean Line, farmers in north-central Iowa will soon be faced with the same decision, as Clean Line begins to hold public meetings in those counties in mid-November.
The study corridor for the Rock Island Clean Line includes land in the following counties: O'Brien, Clay, Palo Alto, Kossuth, Hancock, Wright, Franklin, Butler, Grundy, Black Hawk, Buchanan, Benton, Linn, Jones, Cedar, and Scott.
Would the Rock Island Clean Line go through your county? Find out more on the Iowa Farm Bureau's website.