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    New proposed transmission line draws concerns

    May 16, 2022 - Andrew Bahl


      IOLATravis Wilson isn't opposed to change in his southeast Kansas community.

      But for his 160-acre plot of land, there sure has been a lot of it in recent years.

      First came arrival of wind development in Allen County, dotting the landscape around Wilson's property with turbines — a decision he respects, even though it means his house "sounds like a washing machine" if windows are open.

      But now the southern part of his land is directly impacted by a new kind of development: a proposed 89-mile transmission line from Wolf Creek Nuclear Power Plant in Burlington to another power station near Joplin, Mo.

      Working in information technology, Wilson farms on the side, breeding livestock and raising row crops, as well as managing another individual's land.

      When Wilson made the decision to return to his hometown of Iola after years away, he said he didn't bank on features more reminiscent of urban life following him to the country.

      "I'm all for progress," Wilson said. "I'm just a little tired of it coming right by me."

      Landowners in southeast Kansas aren't the only ones questioning whether the idea is a good one.

      Proponents of the line argue it will save ratepayers millions over the decades to come. They also point to benefits for landowners and local economies alike, as well as generating tax revenue for the state as a whole.

      But the transmission line, currently under review by the Kansas Corporation Commission, isn't the brainchild of Kansas groups.

      Instead, it was proposed by Southwest Power Pool, the 14-state group charged with running the regional power grid.

      This has led to concerns that energy is being shipped out-of-state to fulfill broader energy interests — without benefits for Kansas.

      Regulators and landowners alike are being confronted with a novel and pressing set of questions. The answers could dictate the state's energy future.

      "Why it is a case of particular import is that it's clearly a case where federal and regional planning meets the rights of state to regulate or to legislate inside their own borders," said Jim Zakoura, an Overland Park attorney who represents a coalition of commercial ratepayers. "And we believe it's very clear that Kansas has the right to say this and to determine this."

      Wolf Creek transmission

      line poses new questions

      for Kansas regulators

      The proposed route would run southeast from Wolf Creek, which sits outside Burlington in Coffey County, slicing through Anderson, Allen, Bourbon and Crawford counties before it reaches the Missouri border.

      Its genesis dates back to 2019, when the Southwest Power Pool engaged in its annual process of planning out infrastructure needs in the region, a process that comes at the behest of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

      Florida-based NextEra Energy was ultimately selected to construct the line at an estimated cost of $85 million.

      The idea is to send energy currently being generated at Wolf Creek elsewhere in the region via the Missouri substation.

      This would allow the state's main population centers in eastern Kansas, as well as Kansas City, Mo., to use wind energy being generated in the western part of the state.

      This arrangement would more efficiently allocate resources, allow for more stability in the regional grid if adverse weather events were to occur and reduce congestion that currently exists, proponents argue.

      "As a result, the Project will maximize Kansas energy resources to the benefit of all SPP customers," NextEra's application to operate in Kansas said.

      The company outlined a range of expected benefits, including the creation of nearly 900 jobs while the line is being built.

      Ultimately, NextEra claims the line will create $28 million in tax revenues for the state, though this assumes no taxes would be paid for the first decade of the line's existence.

      It would create only a half-dozen or so permanent jobs, according to the economic impact study commissioned by NextEra, though the company projects hundreds of positions and millions in activity will occur during construction.

      Ultimately, Becky Walding, executive director of business management for NextEra Energy Transmission, said the benefits would far outweigh the costs.

      Between $8 and $86 million in lower energy rates would flow to Kansans, she said, in addition to the larger benefits to the region more broadly, which would total $400 million in savings over the next 40 years.

      "While the line terminates in Missouri, the benefits are across the system," Walding said. "So power is just allowed to flow more freely in Kansas on both the origination of the line as well as the termination of the line."

      For residents, resignation

      and frustration over power

      line proposal

      In Allen County, however, the mood is largely one of resignation.

      "My guess is they just felt, 'This is what we're gonna do,'" Allen County Commissioner David Lee said. "We're gonna let you know what we're gonna do. We're gonna come and tell you, but other than that, you know, it is what it is."

      The impacts on individual landowners can vary depending on their situation.

      "Folks that engage in agriculture industry know that the responsibility for the stewardship of their land falls squarely on their shoulders," said Debbie Bearden, a local landowner and head of the Allen County Farm Bureau. "They don't take that lightly. So when projects come through like this, you might call it a resistance. But more at the root of it is efforts to protect what they're responsible for."

      Under a copy of the proposed landowner contract obtained by the Capital-Journal, NextEra would be granted an easement of 150 feet, though this could be extended further depending on the characteristics of the land.

      A rancher who primarily raises cattle would be less impacted, as their livestock would be able to more easily co-exist with the transmission line. Farmers growing wheat or soybeans, however, would have a more difficult time continuing to use the land.

      There is also a financial component.

      When a farmer signs a contract to allow wind turbines on their property, there is generally a regular lease payment made to the landowner. In many cases, that payment could continue if they die or sell the land.

      In this case, the company would issue a one-time payment of $3,500 per acre of land impacted. NextEra would also pay for any crop damages and would be held liable only in instances of negligence.

      The company said the structure is common for projects run by utilities and noted the up-front payment is significantly higher because it is a one-time arrangement.

      Bill King is a retired director of public works in Allen County, meaning he is no stranger to utilities projects.

      Still, King described his 20-acre property as a "hobby farm" that has been used as an educational tool for his children and grandchildren.

      None of the workers for NextEra or their contractors have been unpleasant, King said, and he noted he wanted to work with the company to reach an equitable deal.

      But he would appreciate it if they were fair or even "more than fair" with how they compensated landowners.

      "It just kind of leaves a bad taste in your mouth," he said. "Like we don't have any say. It's our land. But we don't have any say in the matter, right? That's what they're saying. That's the rub."

      It is likely many landowners will attempt to negotiate a better deal.

      But if the project is approved, NextEra can use eminent domain to obtain the land needed for the line, regardless of an owner's feelings about the project, though the company insists this is a rare step.

      This has left some residents feeling like they are going up against an entity holding all of the cards.

      "You know, we need to have a contract and I haven't even seen one," said Beverly Franklin, a local landowner.

      Filings raise questions

      about KCC process

      At least two landowners, one in Anderson County and one in Coffey County, have taken matters a step further.

      In a motion filed on May 6, Darren McGee and Rochelle McGee Smart, petitioned the KCC to allow them to intervene in the official regulatory proceedings, arguing their interests have not been represented.

      Their attorney, Rustin Kimmell, argued in the motion that it violated state statute for NextEra to be seeking to acquire right-of-way when they have not been formally approved to do business in the state by the KCC.

      "The Intervenors are significantly and unfairly prejudiced by (NextEra) unlawfully transacting business in Kansas," the motion said.

      NextEra has said the process thus far has been voluntary, as they only have sought an option from landowners to obtain the land in a move to speed up the eventual development.

      "It's not really circumventing the process," Walding said. "It's really a part of going ahead and having some of the land potentially known of where you could go through and having a route potentially that works."

      Other stakeholders have also argued their voice has been denied.

      The KCC has allowed a number of entities, including Evergy, the main owner of Wolf Creek, to intervene in the case.

      But it opted to limit the Kansas Industrial Consumers Group, a coalition of major business and nonprofit interests, to offering input only on the move's potential impact on electric rates.

      Such action is rare and it prompted one KCC member, Commissioner Dwight Keen, to issue a dissenting opinion, a relatively unusual move.

      "In my opinion, this 'standard' by which the majority seeks to limit KIC intervention is, at best, over broad, vague and ambiguous and, accordingly ineffectual and virtually unenforceable," Keen wrote.

      This has raised skepticism about how much scrutiny the KCC will ultimately give the project.

      "I hope they will consider all the ramifications and not just cave into NextEra on this thing," said Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, chair of the Senate Utilities Committee.

      For landowners,

      long-term questions remain

      And there are questions about how much regional and national interests can play a role in dictating what route regulators ultimately take in approving the project.

      Under state statute, the KCC must determine the "necessity and reasonableness" of the project by considering "benefit to both consumers in Kansas and consumers outside the state and economic development benefits in Kansas."

      Zakoura, the Overland Park attorney, noted this is a fundamentally different calculus than what is being looked at by the SPP, which is charged with focusing solely on the energy needs of 14 different states.

      "That's a whole lot different than a examination in Kansas that would look at benefits and costs in our state," Zakoura said.

      His concerns center on the potential impact the project will have on rates. The state already is among the highest in the region for retail electric prices, something business groups have consistently objected to.

      But Walding, the NextEra executive, said there were protections in place to "to make sure that this isn't a federal oversight, or an SPP oversight."

      The public scrutiny in Kansas over the project, she said, was unusual, noting Kansas has representatives on the SPP, who voted to move forward with the transmission line.

      "This is a little bit more attention than what we normally receive," she said. "It's sometimes a part of the process. And so that's why I would say there's protections there."

      Similar debates have played out in other states.

      The Pennsylvania Utility Commission rejected a proposed transmission line straddling that state's border with Maryland over concerns that it would lead to higher costs for ratepayers — despite an estimated $4 billion a year in savings regionally.

      Ari Peskoe, director of the Electricity Law Initiative at the Harvard Law School Environmental and Energy Law Program, said there are "winners and losers" in transmission projects and that could implicate Kansans, including local landowners.

      "Transmission just has these broad societal benefits that are often difficult to anticipate, recognizing that the costs are often borne by a very small group of people as well," Peskoe said. "And those are more immediate, obviously."

      A hearing is set on the matter before the KCC in early June and a decision is expected quickly, likely by the end of August. If approved, construction is set to begin in late 2023 and wrap up by the beginning of 2025.

      The larger conversation is unlikely to go away, however.

      Federal regulators are increasingly gung ho about transmission line projects, with FERC recently proposing a rule to encourage regional transmission groups like the SPP to embark on better long-term planning for their grid needs.

      That means a state like Kansas, which produces ample wind power, could be increasingly called upon to ship that power out-of-state to help address broader regional and national energy needs.

      "The Venn diagram, hopefully there's a lot of overlap between Kansas interests, and clean energy interests in the nation's interests," Peskoe said. "And, hopefully, there's a large sweet spot in the middle."

      But for Wilson, the Iola farmer and rancher, the debate is a much more tangible one.

      Lost crops are not an issue — the rocky area on his property where the transmission line is set to run is not suitable for growing or grazing. Still, a host of unanswered questions remain.

      What if a well-meaning worker leaves a gate open, letting cattle out onto a nearby road?

      What will happen if the company abruptly yanks the power line, much like the sudden end of a nearby railroad line that sat dormant and unused for years before being turned into trails.

      And perhaps the biggest question: what will happen to the value and integrity of land he expected to pass down to his children, much as his childhood home had been in his family for generations before.

      "I'm just in the middle of an ugly scene, an ugly picture," Wilson said. "And that's not why we did that. If (the line) was just part of it or in the corner it would be a lot easier. It's going to go right all the way down the entire length of my property. ... It's frustrating."

      Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at abahl@gannett.com or by phone at 443-979-6100.


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