Published April 21st, 2022 at 6:00 AM
Loren Sprouse drove through his hometown of Braymer, Missouri, and noted the height of each structure he passed. The water tower loomed 100 feet high. The grain elevator was a little taller.
All were shorter than the proposed 130- to 160-foot electrical transmission towers that would cut through his property as part of the 800-mile Grain Belt Express transmission line.
The project, which has been in the works for over 10 years, would sit on only 18 acres of Sprouse’s farm. But he’d be able to see it for miles.
“No one who owns land can’t feel a special place for that land … That’s why you want to maintain it,” Sprouse said. “This line is not going to do that. It’s going to create a big, obvious scar completely across the state. And it’ll be the single biggest, ugliest thing in northern Missouri and with it set a precedent for more to be built just like it.”
Scar or not, the line promises to connect three of the country’s regional electrical grids – Southwest Power Pool (SPP), Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) and PJM Interconnection – and would bring wind energy harnessed in southwest Kansas to other parts of the country.
Citing ominous warnings about the dangers of climate change, national and local plans call for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. But to achieve those goals, some renewable energy will have to be moved from where it’s easily harnessed to areas that need it. In the case of the Grain Belt Express, that means moving wind energy from the gusty plains of Kansas to more densely populated areas.
Landowners like Sprouse say they aren’t opposed to clean energy projects. But they’re dead set against a private company using eminent domain to complete its project.
Grain Belt Express, which would cost an estimated $2 billion, would stretch from just outside Dodge City, Kansas, across northern Missouri, south central Illinois and into Indiana. The high voltage direct current (HVDC) line would transport 4,000 megawatts of electricity both west to east and east to west in emergency situations.
That’s the power equivalent of 15 million barrels of oil, or enough to power 1.6 million homes annually. For the 39 municipalities in Missouri signed up to buy power off the line, it’s an estimated $12.8 million in annual savings.
Patrick Whitty, a senior vice president at Grain Belt Express developer Invenergy, said the direct current (DC) transmission line is the most efficient way to transport power from where it’s generated to where it’s needed, and with the smallest footprint.
DC, as compared to alternating current (AC), allows a greater transmission of power that can go both directions on one line. There’s also a reduced loss of power from friction on a DC line.
“One of the major reliability benefits for Grain Belt will be the ability to also move power under emergency conditions from east to west,” Whitty said. “Had Grain Belt been in place during (the winter storm power outages of February 2021), we know that some of those outage events could have been minimized or even avoided altogether.”
In both Kansas and Missouri, Grain Belt has been able to prove its necessity to regulatory agencies and gain public utility status – and thus, the power to access private property via eminent domain.
The company said it would only use the power of condemnation as a last resort, preferring instead to negotiate with landowners and establish a fair price for easements.
So far, the company has secured voluntary agreements with 1,200 of the 1,700 parcels it will cross. To date, Grain Belt has filed about 10 condemnation notices.
When Invenergy bought the project from Clean Line in 2018, Whitty said it sent out letters to landowners in Kansas and Missouri along the proposed route and informed them of the new ownership and compensation plan.
The company would pay landowners 110% of the fair market value of their land, plus an additional $18,000 for each tower placed on their property. Owners of “century farms” that have remained in the same family for more than 100 years would be paid an additional premium.
“There is no transmission line that is without impacts, but the best we can do is to make sure that landowners are fairly compensated,” Whitty said. “In our case, we are going well above and beyond what would be typical for a transmission project.”
He said the company is aware of the rising price of property, as well as matters specific to one person’s property that could make it more valuable than the county averages.
“We value the dialogue with landowners when it comes to both matters of compensation, as well as facility design,” Whitty said. “Anytime a landowner can document (comparables) of higher land values, we will consider that and very often we will revise land values upwards.”
Landowners can choose to have an upfront payment for their easement and tower, or choose to have the payments spread out over the lifetime of the project. According to Whitty, Invenergy has already promised $77 million in compensation agreements and has paid out $10 million of that.
Sprouse has a pretty good idea of where the line will go through his property, because he knows it will follow the already cleared path of the three pipelines he hosts. Other landowners, like Marilyn O’Bannon in Monroe County, have less of an idea and feel shut out from the development process.
Whitty said this is because the line has to be looked at as a whole. Until all of the easements are agreed on, the placement of the line through a particular parcel has to be somewhat fluid.
“Any one structure placement may have effects on adjacent structure placement, so there’s a whole lot of design and engineering that has to go into that on the front end,” Whitty said. “We’re still in that design and engineering phase.”
Tower placement also is dependent on conversations with the landowner and their knowledge of the land.
“We’re getting input on areas within a landowner parcel or property that they either want to make sure we avoid, or sometimes there are areas where they would prefer to see a structure … We want to understand as thoroughly as possible how we can best go about, through the design and engineering phase, minimizing impacts to the land,” Whitty said.
Eight years ago, O’Bannon didn’t know anything about the Grain Belt Express. Now, it’s her life.
“I can’t describe what it’s like to wake up every morning and have this on your mind and go to bed with that being the last thing on your mind for eight years,” O’Bannon said.
After learning from a friend that the line would cross through about five miles of her property, she started digging to learn more about the project.
She found neighbors and other landowners along the route who also felt they’d been left in the dark, and those who knew about the project weren’t asking enough questions. Is it safe? How will the county get money from it? Where will it go?
Through her work, which has led her to an elected seat on the county commission, she’s consistently felt out of the loop and disrespected by the company.
Other landowners, like Wayne Wilcox of Randolph County, have been involved in the project since before the route was proposed.
“The thing that I first looked at with them was, ‘Were they honest?’,” Wilcox said. “Would they accept comments from us? Would they work at making changes? And they did.”
He’s been attending meetings since the beginning and has had an easy time negotiating with the Grain Belt developer on his easement compensation, and the placement of the line on his property.
Sprouse is waiting to hear back on his submitted counter offer, and while more compensation would be great, what he really wants is to not have to see the line.
He hopes it could be buried like the 350-mile SOO Green HDVC Link in Iowa that is following existing railroad easements. As an alternative, he would proffer the Grain Belt Express follow highway right of ways in Missouri.
But Whitty said those alternatives weren’t viable.
Invenergy has experience with underground technology, but existing buried lines aren’t as long, nor do they carry as much power as Grain Belt would.
“That introduces a level of engineering and design considerations that simply make that infeasible,” Whitty said. “With 95% of transmissions developed overhead, that’s really just the most affordable way to build these projects.”
Following the highway closest to the current route, U.S. 36, would face the constraint of nearby state conservation sites, as noted in Clean Line’s original route selection study.
So, the route was proposed by the original developer of the Grain Belt Express. It mostly follows existing easements for pipelines or other power lines since the physical path is mostly cleared.
That is where it will go on Sprouse’s property.
He’s not against easements. He already has three pipelines and several rural water lines. But he’s against easements that, he feels, don’t benefit Missourians.
Sprouse remembers his father negotiating a piece of their family property for implementation of the AT&T transcontinental cable. Today his property still has an abandoned hut from the project, a piece of the historical line which connected telephones across the country.
Landowners were compliant and excited for that line.
“This was built for the reason that eminent domain should exist. This was for government security,” Sprouse said, gesturing towards the hut. “They should have the right to eminent domain at the federal level, because they were providing a service, they were doing something the government needed.
“For someone who’s a private individual who’s just doing it to reap the benefits of that, and in using the cheapest cost plan to do it, that doesn’t justify the power of eminent domain,” he said.
For the past several years, opponents of the project have introduced bills in the Missouri General Assembly designed to kill the project.
If passed, House Bill 2005 would retroactively strip the Grain Belt Express of its public utility status. It would increase easement payments to 150% of fair market value and require the line to deliver 50% of its transmission capability in Missouri.
Earlier this month it was reported “do pass” in the Missouri House. Opponents to the line are hopeful this year’s bill will pass.
Whitty admitted that a lot of the resentment towards the line goes back to the very beginnings of the project, before Invenergy was in the picture.
“If I understand correctly, there was no plan to deliver power into Missouri in the early iterations of this project, and I think a lot of the perspectives may still be based around that,” he said.
Since then, Invenergy has come to agreements with the 39 municipalities to receive power off of the line, and is looking to increase the number of Missourians who can benefit from the line.
“We are actively evaluating the opportunity, not only to make sure we’re following through on delivering on the agreement with the 39 communities across Missouri … but also looking at how we can increase, significantly, the energy of delivery to Missouri,” Whitty said.
The 39 municipalities in Missouri were essential to Grain Belt’s public utility status.
Missouri Public Utility Alliance (MPUA) is constantly conducting studies on the power pools it buys and sells wholesale electricity for in the state.
John Twitty, president of MPUA, said as Grain Belt was being developed, studies found the pool serving these 39 Missouri municipalities would need an additional source of power in order to meet its future demands.
“The reason that we’re interested in (Grain Belt) is that we’re bringing low cost wind energy to our customers, and obviously if you’re in a utility business, you want to try to get really reliable electricity, and you want to get it as inexpensively as possible,” Twitty said.
Because Grain Belt Express is a merchant transmission line, those signed to receive power off of the line will, in effect, help pay for the construction of the project.
The cost will be spread out over the 20-year contract the Missouri Joint Municipal Electric Utility Commission (a business unit of MPUA) has with Invenergy. Twitty said the project makes sense to join because once the upfront costs are gone, the energy is cheap.
“Once you’ve spent that money, there’s no fuel cost, the wind is free,” Twitty said. “Even though there are new upfront costs, those can be defrayed over lots of energy that flows across the system.”
The 500 megawatts of power from the line are contractually obligated to these power pools, meaning even if there’s higher demand in a bigger city, these Missouri municipalities will keep their lights on.
Down the road, Twitty foresees more Missouri cities and entities receiving the same low-cost power.
Sprouse and O’Bannon fear a future where their land is home to many transmission lines of this type. They fear the Grain Belt Express will set a precedent for crossing the Midwest via eminent domain.
When they joined the family business of farming and ranching, neither of them thought a big infrastructure project would be part of their legacy.
“I don’t think that’s the legacy that I would want to see, and I guess that’s the question,” Sprouse said. “Is that the legacy Invenergy wants to see? Or do they just want to make a lot of money and go on?”
If the line goes in, O’Bannon said her parents plan to move.
Her grandfather and father were born in the house that could soon have Grain Belt towers in the backyard. She has neighbors who she knows will move too. It’s more than just a 150-foot wide easement that will be affected.
“It is not that we are against progress or renewables, we’re against the way this business has conducted itself and the plan that they have to go through the middle of our farms,” O’Bannon said. “It’s just unbelievable how that feels, when you know in the end, they’ve got the eminent domain as their card to play.”
There is no perfect project.
Billy Davies, conservation program coordinator with the Missouri Chapter of the Sierra Club, said there always needs to be an evaluation of the people involved and the people benefiting from sustainability efforts.
”We need to be able to evaluate the good things and the bad things of every project including Grain Belt Express,” Davies said. “If there are folks who are feeling left out and feeling like these solutions are not for them, how are we working to support all in our community of Missouri?”
To Davies, the property owners who support the Grain Belt Express by allowing the transmission line on their land are “kind of heroes.” Rather than think narrowly about the consequences of the towers on their land, Davies urges opponents to think of the consequences for a nation that doesn’t make big moves toward a sustainable future.
That’s the approach Wilcox takes.
He’ll be able to see the tower from his house, and will pass under it each day as he drives to town. Rather than look at the line as an eyesore, Wilcox said he thinks of the benefits it will have on his community.
No municipalities in Randolph County are currently contracted to receive power off of the line, but the tax revenue from a big infrastructure project will positively impact the public schools and libraries.
Wilcox reckons there’s no sense in avoiding the opportunities this line brings to Missouri. Ultimately, he thinks the project will do more good than harm.
“I believe the project will go through, and I believe that anybody that hasn’t negotiated with them, needs to step up to the plate,” Wilcox said. “I think they will find people that are reasonable to talk to, and can work things out.”
Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Cody Boston is a video producer for Kansas City PBS.