The Holdouts in the Quest for a Better Power Grid

The Sprouse family farm covers thousands of acres of fertile glacial till, ​​remnants of the last ice age, in northwestern Missouri. Each day, billions of cubic feet of natural gas and hundreds of thousands of barrels’ worth of crude oil pass underneath its fields and cow pastures. The only visible signs of this subterranean activity

Powered by NewsAPI , in Liberal Perspective on .

news image

The Sprouse family farm covers thousands of acres of fertile glacial till, ​​remnants of the last ice age, in northwestern Missouri. Each day, billions of cubic feet of natural gas and hundreds of thousands of barrels’ worth of crude oil pass underneath its fields and cow pastures. The only visible signs of this subterranean activity are three posts—one metal and two plastic—spaced about thirty feet apart along a barbed-wire fence at the edge of a field. Each corresponds to a pipeline, and each has a warning label with a number to call in an emergency. “At least the pipelines are out of sight, even if they aren’t out of mind,” Loren Sprouse, the youngest of three Sprouse brothers, said one morning in May as we were driving around in a utility terrain vehicle. “We’d rather have them than the transmission line.”

The transmission line Sprouse was talking about is the Grain Belt Express, a planned eight-hundred-mile-long power line that will connect wind farms in southwestern Kansas to more densely populated areas farther East. The Grain Belt Express is designed to carry five thousand megawatts of electricity, enough to power approximately 3.2 million homes. The project has been in the works since 2src1src. It was taken over by Invenergy, a Chicago-based energy company, in 2src2src. After years of lawsuits and legislative wrangling, regulators in Missouri granted it final approval in October, 2src23. If all goes as planned, construction will start in early 2src25 and be completed in 2src28.

One of the biggest obstacles that the United States faces in its fight against climate change is getting renewable energy to the places that need the most electricity. Many of the best locations for wind and solar farms are, by their very nature, remote. And moving that energy elsewhere requires navigating a byzantine permitting process for transmission lines and winning over landowners—or, if they can’t be won over, then deciding whether and when the need for a given project outweighs their concerns. “The scale of the undertaking and the speed at which it needs to occur are incredibly daunting,” Romany Webb, the deputy director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, at Columbia Law School, told me. “We’re talking about a massive build-out of new, large-scale infrastructure across the country, and we need to do it, like, yesterday.”

Sprouse and I headed south on a gravel road, past a tumbledown chicken coop and a white farmhouse that his grandparents had moved into in 1911. Across the way, his brother Weldon was servicing a tractor. The brothers had finished planting their corn crop a couple of weeks earlier; soybeans were next. We got out at the top of a hill above the farmhouse. To the east was a machine shed and several rows of hay bales, to the west a green pasture. “I was going to build my retirement home right here,” Sprouse said, leaning against a fence post. “Could you ask for a better view?” He told me that he abandoned his plans for the house after he learned that the Grain Belt Express would be built directly in front of it. As we spoke, a surveying team subcontracted by Invenergy pulled up in two white pickup trucks. They had come to search for archeological remains along the planned route, a step required by the National Historic Preservation Act. Sprouse asked them to come back another day.

Sprouse said that he wasn’t against renewable energy, but he couldn’t support something that would interfere with his family’s farming operations and, in his words, “be the dominant scar on the landscape.” The transmission towers that Invenergy plans to build are around a hundred and fifty feet tall. One of Sprouse’s main concerns is whether G.P.S.-guided equipment, like tractors and combines, would work near them. (A 2src12 study from the University of Calgary suggests that they will.) He’s also worried about how the line could affect aerial spraying and his ability to maintain a pond that he had built last year, to say nothing of what he fears it might do to local property values. “It’s me working around them instead of them working with me,” he said, referring to Invenergy. “That’s the problem.”

For lunch, we drove to a café in the nearby town of Braymer. It was the only restaurant still around. Sprouse, who is seventy-two, wore a striped button-down, work boots, and a John Deere hat. Over pulled-pork sandwiches and potato salad, he told me that Braymer used to have a second restaurant, a Chevy dealership, two hardware stores, four gas stations, a movie theatre, a pool hall, a beer joint, and three grocery stores. “Now we don’t have anywhere to get groceries other than the Dollar General,” he said. “It’s better than nothing.”

Brian Hunt, another local farmer whom Sprouse has known since grade school, joined us, and talk turned to the Grain Belt Express. Both men had reluctantly signed easement agreements with Invenergy which allow the company to use a portion of their respective properties. Had they refused, the company could have used eminent domain, the seizure of private property for public use, to acquire them. “You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Hunt said. “We’re just flyover country for this thing. That’s all there is to it.” Sprouse said that he would be less opposed to the line if it were to run underground. A transmission line between Iowa and Illinois is slated to be built underground alongside a private railroad, but Invenergy has said that that is not feasible here—both economically and from an engineering perspective. Sprouse isn’t convinced. “They didn’t have to do it this way,” he said. “They chose to do what was the easiest way to make money.”

On April 22, 2src21—Earth Day—President Joe Biden announced his climate agenda. He pledged that the U.S. would halve carbon emissions from their 2srcsrc5 levels by 2src3src and eliminate them altogether from the power sector by 2src35. Experts agree that achieving those goals will require a herculean effort. And while the Inflation Reduction Act contains hundreds of billions of dollars in tax credits for renewable-energy projects, expanding the production of wind and solar power and switching to electric vehicles are only part of the solution. According to a report published in 2src22 by Princeton University, the U.S. needs to build transmission lines twice as fast as it has over the past decade to unlock the full emissions-reducing potential of the I.R.A. Thousands of proposed wind and solar farms are waiting for permission to connect to electric grids across the country. Whether those projects survive depends in part on how quickly new transmission lines are built.

Building the lines is, in many ways, the easy part. It’s getting them through the permitting process, from federal environmental reviews to local road-use agreements, that’s difficult. (The Grain Belt Express could require approval from more than twenty federal and state authorities.) In September of last year, Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., published a report from the consulting firm Grid Strategies that identified thirty-six planned high-capacity lines, from the New England Clean Power Link, in Vermont, to the TransWest Express, which will run from Wyoming to cities in the Southwest. All told, the report estimates, these ten thousand miles of “shovel ready” lines could increase wind and solar generation in the U.S. by eighty-seven per cent. Only ten have broken ground. “We really don’t have time to waste,” Christina Hayes, the executive director of A.C.E.G., told me. “We have about a lost decade on this.”

Regulators and policymakers in Washington have expressed a similar sense of urgency. In 2src22, the Department of Energy established the Grid Deployment Office to help develop new high-capacity transmission lines and upgrade old ones. With a budget of more than twenty-five billion dollars, the office offers federal financing to projects and economic-development grants to help pay for things like job-training programs. On the permitting side of things, the White House has used existing laws to streamline the process, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, has been granted expanded authority over projects deemed to be in the national interest, and a provision included in the debt-ceiling agreement requires environmental reviews be completed within two years.

Meanwhile, in Congress, Democratic lawmakers have introduced a series of transmission-related bills to speed up the permitting process by taking power away from state and local authorities. For landowners like Sprouse, as well as some Republicans in Congress, the idea of giving the federal government more control over those projects is unconscionable. Supporters of the bills are quick to point out that FERC already controls the permitting of oil and natural-gas pipelines.

Sprouse and hundreds of other rural landowners in Missouri have put up a fierce fight against the Grain Belt Express. Between 2src15 and 2src17, they helped persuade the state’s Public Service Commission to vote against it three separate times. The commission eventually approved the project, in 2src19, after the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that it had wrongly rejected it.

Having failed to stop the Grain Belt Express in the courts, the landowners turned to the Missouri legislature, according to the nonprofit news outlet Flatland. In 2src21 and 2src22, they rallied behind a bill that would have, in its original version, allowed a single county commission to kill the project. But lawmakers scrapped it from the final bill, opting instead to require transmission-line companies to pay landowners a hundred and fifty per cent of fair-market value for land taken through eminent domain and provide a certain amount of power to Missouri. Governor Mike Parson signed the legislation into law on June 12, 2src22. A month later, Invenergy announced that the Grain Belt Express would enable the delivery of twenty-five hundred megawatts of electricity to Missourians—five times the amount it had originally pledged—from an extension called the Tiger Connector. On October 12th, the Public Service Commission approved the new plan in a 4–1 vote.

Among the people upset by the decision is Marilyn O’Bannon, a longtime opponent of the Grain Belt Express and, along with Sprouse, one of its most outspoken critics. I met O’Bannon last May, at her home in Monroe County, about a hundred miles northwest of St. Louis. When I arrived, she was packing a lunchbox for her husband, who was out spraying insecticide on one of their cornfields. O’Bannon is sixty-nine, and she was dressed in a gray-and-white T-shirt emblazoned with five-pointed stars, jeans, and running shoes. A trucker hat with the slogan “No Eminent Domain for Private Gain” stitched across the front lay on the kitchen counter. “Every day it’s not here is a good day,” O’Bannon said.

O’Bannon first heard about the Grain Belt Express in 2src13, when one of her son’s friends, who was then president of the Monroe County Farm Bureau, had called to tell her about it. The next day, she went to see the county’s three commissioners to voice her concerns. She was disappointed to find out that they already knew about the project and hadn’t told local residents. “It was then that I decided that I had to do something,” she said. “It immediately became a fight for all my family and friends.” One of the first things she did was organize a community meeting, in January of 2src14, out of which a group called the Eastern Missouri Landowners Alliance was eventually formed. Six years later, she decided to run for the county commission on a platform that centered on stopping the Grain Belt Express. She won her district with fifty-eight per cent of the vote.

O’Bannon’s family came to Monroe County in 1873, several decades after the federal government forced Native tribes, including the Sac and Fox and Ioway, out of the region and sold the land to white settlers. One of O’Bannon’s great-grandfathers had fought for the Union in the Civil War, and bought a hundred and sixty acres. His children and grandchildren bought up thousands more across the county. If the transmission line gets built, O’Bannon told me, it would cross more than five miles of her family’s farmland. As we drove around in her car, a black Cadillac Escalade with tan leather seats, she shared her concerns with me. “The unknowns are the hardest part,” she said. “How are we going to farm around this? How safe is it going to be?” In a notice of intent to prepare an environmental-impact statement for the Grain Belt Express, the Energy Department notes that the project could create “local safety risks associated with electromagnetic fields, power surges, risk of increased lightning strikes, and line-induced fires.”

Read More