LINCOLN — Lynn Ballagh sees sand hills and sky when he looks out across his Nebraska cattle ranch.
In a few years, he also could see a high-voltage power line cutting across his open vista north of Burwell, a prospect that makes the 62-year-old rancher unhappy.
“My No. 1 concern is the Sand Hills,” he said. “The Sand Hills is the last area of the state that hasn’t been marred by a project such as this.”
The Nebraska Public Power District is moving ahead with plans to build the first 345-kilovolt line in the Sand Hills, a vast expanse of grass-covered dunes in central and northern Nebraska that’s home to more cattle than people.
The roughly 220-mile line, with an estimated cost of $328 million, would represent the largest transmission project built by NPPD since the late 1970s or early 1980s.
Called the R-Project, the line has been in the works for two years, but NPPD has now proposed preferred and alternate routes. Releasing the route proposals has prompted concern among some landowners and wildlife groups, but also support from those who say the line will unlock the region for wind development.
Among supporters is the Cherry County Wind Energy Association, whose members have been working for several years to develop wind projects as a form of economic development for their rural county.
Without large transmission lines such as the R-Project, wind turbines will never be erected in the region, said George Johnson of Cody, the association’s president.
“We’re pretty enthused about it,” he said. “It’s going to provide a means for us to export power out of Cherry County and ultimately out of the state.”
The line would start at NPPD’s Gerald Gentleman Station near Sutherland, the state’s largest electrical generating plant. It would run northeast to near Thedford before running east to near Clearwater. It would connect with existing electrical supply lines along the way and feature two substations.
The project would allow NPPD to handle a growing electrical load in the region while increasing the reliability of the power grid for Nebraska customers, said Tom Kent, vice president and chief operating officer for the district.
It also would help allow renewable energy projects such as wind farms to access the broader energy market. Despite ranking in the top five among states for wind energy potential, Nebraska remains in the middle of state rankings for wind power generation.
“In our existing system, there’s limited capability to get electricity to the grid,” Kent said, “but there’s a lot of discussion about developing more renewable energy. They go hand in hand.”
Nebraska is a member of the nine-state Southwest Power Pool, a regional organization that helps operate the nation’s electrical grid. The Southwest Power Pool identified the R-Project as part of a 10-year plan for transmission needs within the entire region.
As a result, members of the pool will fund 93 percent of the cost of the project, Kent said. In turn, Nebraska helps fund projects in other parts of the region as well.
Officials with NPPD hosted three open houses about the project last week and will hold more this week in Bartlett, Dunning and Burwell.
The district plans to decide a final route before conducting formal public hearings in the fall. It would then work to negotiate easements with potentially more than 200 landowners for a 200-foot-wide right-of-way. If easement agreements can’t be reached, the district has the authority to obtain rights-of-way through eminent domain.
The one-time easement payments represent 80 percent of the independently assessed value of the land. Property owners could continue to farm or graze the ground in the right-of-way, although they could not build or grow trees on land underneath the line.
Construction on the project is not expected to begin until the end of 2015 and would take about two years.
A group of landowners who oppose the project have started a Facebook page called Save Our Sandhills. A top concern is that construction crews will severely damage the fragile soil or wet meadows with their heavy equipment.
“It will never be the same,” said Ballagh, whose land has been in his family for six generations. “Why should I have to put up with this on my ground just for someone to run a power line so they can make a profit?”
Environmental and wildlife groups also have concerns about the impact on threatened plants and insects, along with the danger the line poses to migrating birds such as endangered whooping cranes. Studies have shown wind turbines can present a danger to birds and bats.
While many environmental groups support the development of renewable energy projects, they have called for more discussion on where wind projects should be located.
They have worked with state and federal wildlife professionals to publish a map that shows the areas most ecologically sensitive to wind development, which are generally in the central corridor of Nebraska.
But the map also identifies areas with good wind potential that aren’t as ecologically critical. Develop wind projects in those areas, said Mace Hack, state director of the Nature Conservancy in Nebraska.
“We don’t have to make those Catch-22 choices,” he said.
Staff members with NPPD have started discussions with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to address wildlife concerns related to the power line, Kent said. The project also will require an environmental impact statement.
The recent open houses, the third set of public meetings on the project, are intended to gather the concerns of landowners so they can be best addressed.
“We have those issues in every project,” Kent said. “This project is no different.”