If the United States is to make a transition to clean energy, it will need to build many more transmission lines—the thick wires that deliver power from rural areas, where there’s enough open space for wind and solar, to cities where the most power is consumed.
But the process of building those lines is likely to be fraught with conflict and delays, because people in rural and suburban communities often don’t want to see wires and tall metal towers in their backyards.
Clean energy advocates say that power companies need to do more to understand what fuels public opposition and how best to engage with power line opponents. And one way to start, they say, might be to examine one of the most intense battles over an interstate power line in U.S. history, which unfolded across rural Minnesota for much of the 1970s.
The arguments in that fight—over a 436-mile power line carrying power from a coal plant in central North Dakota to the suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul—started out with lawyers sitting around tables in government boardrooms but ended with protesters in frozen fields carrying rifles and baseball bats.
The power line was developed by the Cooperative Power Association, now Great River Energy, which recently negotiated a controversial sale of the coal plant and the line to Rainbow Energy Marketing of North Dakota.
Some of the people closest to the protests of the 1970s say that their history holds vital lessons about how to build the projects necessary for the energy transition, and how to avoid a quagmire of public opposition.
In the following years, Minnesota corporate and government leaders learned from their mistakes, and some of the same people were involved in a set of transmission projects in the 2000s that experts say is a national model for how to successfully work with the public.
One of the lessons was that power companies need to engage the public early and be willing to change course in the face of well-reasoned criticism, as opposed to ramming through a project.
“You don’t ask for public opinion if you’re not going to listen,” said Will Kaul, who retired in 2017 as a vice president after a career with Great River Energy and its predecessor, Cooperative Power Association.
Opponents of a power line also need to be confident that the process is fair. George Crocker, an environmental advocate who was one of the leaders of the 1970s protest movement, said much of the outrage stemmed from a sense that big companies and the government had already made up their minds, and that any process was just for show.
To be able to support a grid that runs mostly on renewable energy, the United States needs to double, triple or even quadruple it’s transmission capacity, according to several recent studies. One of them, the Net-Zero America report from Princeton University, projected that the country would need to spend $360 to $390 billion on new transmission lines by 2030 to meet climate goals.
“We have this opportunity as a nation to tap into the best resources, but we need transmission to do that,” said Rob Gramlich, president of Grid Strategies, a consulting firm that focuses on transmission. The best resources, he said, are wind and solar obtained from the parts of the country that are the most windy and sunny.
The Biden Administration is hoping to set off a construction boom through increases in federal incentives for the lines, including $5 billion in the just-signed infrastructure bill, and proposals for much more. The bill also includes an expansion of federal authority to approve transmission projects in situations where states are standing in the way.
But transmission line proposals continue to struggle, like New England Clean Energy Connect, which was blocked last month in a referendum by Maine voters, after years of planning and some construction.
Power companies can reduce conflict by building transmission lines in existing corridors, like along highways and railroads, but those options can be more complicated and costly. Another way to ease tensions is to set compensation levels for farmland so high that residents have little doubt that they’re getting a fair deal. But that increases the overall costs of the project.
Companies must find a way to ease community opposition because the urgency of climate change is too great to keep making the same mistakes, said Michael Noble, executive director of Fresh Energy, the Minnesota-based environmental advocacy group.
“It’s in everyone’s interest to learn the lessons of the ’70s,” he said, referring to the power line conflict in his state, “so new transmission can be sited and routed with broad support from the public and the communities most impacted by it.”
Poorly Made Decisions That Cannot be Unmade
In 1973, leaders at the Cooperative Power Association and the United Power Association decided to move forward with a plan to build an 1,100-megawatt coal-fired power plant in North Dakota and a power line to deliver the electricity. The two cooperatives provided power to rural utilities across Minnesota.
While focusing on the financing and the design, the companies did little to let people know about the project, even the people who might have it going through their front yards.
One of those was a farmer named Jim Nelson. He grew up in Elbow Lake, Minnesota, and left his family’s farm to study to be an engineer. He got two degrees and a job with a defense contractor, but he missed home and decided to come back while he was still in his mid-20s, he said.
“I missed being able to look out the window and see for a mile without any buildings,” he said in an interview from his farm. Now 76, his hair is white, and he has a tremor following a stroke.
In 1974, Nelson went to a local government meeting about a proposed power line. He was stunned when he saw that the planned route went almost right through his house. Frustrated that the power companies had done little to publicize their plans, he took it upon himself to inform his neighbors. As opposition grew, he became an organizer and spokesman.
At first, Nelson and other opponents of the power line worked through conventional channels, like trying to persuade local officials to demand that the energy companies modify their plans.
But the power companies were skillful at putting pressure on local and state governments to get what they wanted. In 1975, the companies announced that they were walking away from negotiations with the counties and would instead apply for a permit through the Minnesota Environmental Quality Council, a relatively new state panel with the power to issue permits that would supersede decisions by the counties.
Opponents of the project hired lawyers and drafted testimony, and they continued their fight through the state process. But they found that they were out of their element in a debate that had shifted from local concerns to a parsing of state energy and environmental regulations.
On June 3, 1976 the state commission issued a construction permit for the power line. The power companies had won. But the fight was far from over.
Ronnie Brooks was on the staff of Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich when he took office in 1976, and she became Perpich’s point person on the power line conflict.
One of the roots of the problem, she said, was that the power companies did not spend enough time and money early in the process to thoroughly explore their options and get to know the people along the line’s potential routes. Then the problem got even worse, because the state panel was designed to answer technical questions about whether the plant was needed, not to assess the kinds of concerns being brought forward by opponents.
“There are decisions that are made poorly and cannot be unmade because the processes by which they are made are flawed, and the damage or impact they have is irreversible,” Brooks said.
A Shift to Civil Disobedience
Having failed to get what they wanted through the government process, the opponents of the power line turned to civil disobedience.
Less than a week after the state’s decision, surveyors drove to a field in Stearns County to do work to prepare for construction. Virgil Fuchs, the owner of the land, drove his tractor toward the surveyors and smashed one of their tripods. He then rammed his tractor into the back of one of the surveyors’ pickup trucks.
“Don’t ask me why I did it,” he said. “I supposed a guy would think it was to bring to the public’s eye what was going on out here.”
His comments were in the 1981 book “Powerline: The First Battle of America’s Energy War,” by Paul Wellstone and Barry M. Casper, about the power line protests. The co-authors were Carleton College faculty members, before Wellstone began a political career that would take him to the U.S. Senate.
Fuchs’ actions helped to inspire other opponents.
Soon after, George Crocker joined the fight. Crocker was a hippie from Minneapolis who was steeped in the anti-Vietnam War movement. He got to know about the power line conflict from his job driving a truck for food co-ops, and he sympathized with the cause.
“The farmers were saying, ‘Crocker, get on the bus. You’re coming back with us,’” he said, in an interview at his home in Lake Elmo, east of St. Paul.
With Crocker’s encouragement, the protesters used nonviolent tactics, like parking their vehicles to form roadblocks that stopped workers from being able to pass, or laying thick piles of manure in places where workers needed to drive or walk. But the demonstrators were also menacing in appearance, carrying baseball bats and rifles and making verbal threats to workers.
Lowry, Minnesota, a small city in Pope County, turned into a gathering place for the protesters. It attracted supporters from Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Native American activists from all over the Midwest, including leaders of the American Indian Movement, based in Minneapolis.
By 1977, the conflict had settled into a stalemate, in which farmers were impeding the energy companies’ ability to do their work and the state government was refusing the companies’ demands for the state to forcibly disperse the protesters.
Flowers and Home-Baked Cookies
The stalemate ended amid the deep freeze of a Minnesota winter. Perpich ordered 215 of the state’s 504 state troopers to Pope County.
On Jan. 9, 1978, outside of Lowry, the protesters, men and women dressed in their warmest winter gear, carried American flags and marched toward a line of state troopers who stood ready to block their path. National news cameras captured the images as a state patrol helicopter and plane flew overhead.
The farmers walked up to the troopers and offered each of them a plastic carnation, along with hot coffee and home-baked cookies. They had decided as a group to respond to the state’s show of force with a gesture of nonviolence.
The daily protests continued after that, but became smaller. Some leaders of the movement wondered if they had miscalculated by not creating enough of a disturbance to provoke a violent response from police, because the public seemed to be losing interest, according to Wellstone and Casper’s book.
Some farmers went home. The national media went home. The construction of the line moved forward.
A few of the line’s opponents turned increasingly to vandalism, using their equipment to topple the giant towers that had been installed to hold the line.
An April 1978 poll by the Minneapolis Tribune asked Minnesotans for their views on the power line, and 63 percent said they sided with the farmers over the power companies. But there was no doubt at that point that the line would soon be completed, and it was.
Lessons for the Future
More than 40 years after the protests, some of the people who were closely involved said that understanding those events can help to point the way to reducing conflict as companies try to build the lines needed for the transition to clean energy.
Others say the topic is still so painful that they don’t want to talk about it as if it were some academic exercise.
Jim Nelson said he feels as if he let people down by not succeeding in blocking the line. Now he sees the line towering over his property every time he goes down his long driveway to get the mail.
“The land was a sacred trust,” he said. “I failed to preserve it.”
Will Kaul, the retired Great River Energy executive, said he was deeply affected by the power line protests and spent much of his career trying to make it so that power companies and the state can be more careful and compassionate about major construction decisions.
He said he remembers tense meetings in the late 1970s and early 1980s about the power line and subsequent projects. He was on the receiving end of threats, implicit and explicit, but he never was physically attacked.
The state law governing approval of power projects was changed several times, and Kaul played a role in lobbying for some of the changes. Now the law says that if a project is crossing farm land, the owner can demand that the state buy the entire farm at fair market value. In subsequent projects, several farmers sold their properties, and Kaul thinks this helped to reduce tensions.
He said he is proud of the process behind the CapX2020 projects in the 2000s, in which several power companies, including Great River, worked together with the regional grid operator to build five transmission lines to support the grid in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin—the first major projects of this type in Minnesota since the 1970s. He views this as a success that was a result in part of what the companies learned from the earlier challenges.
Priti Patel, vice president of transmission for Great River, who began her career as an energy executive long after the protests, said the uprising in the 1970s showed “the need to ensure the voices of rural and local communities are included in the broader energy discussion.”
She said Great River learned from this and changed the way it works with residents in deciding on routes for power lines, with CapX2020 serving as an example of how transmission planning can be done in an inclusive way.
The CapX2020 project was part of a larger initiative across the Midwest called the Multi-Value Projects, or MVPs, overseen by the grid operator, that eventually led to more than a dozen projects being built. Rob Gramlich, the transmission consultant, said those projects were a national model and a “shining example of how to do transmission planning right.”
The projects succeeded in part because they were jointly planned by companies that together had resources to thoroughly explore their options and interact with the public.
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But this ability to avoid controversy has been the exception, especially lately, when several high-profile projects have been slow to move forward. Gramlich was the co-author of a report that lists 22 projects ready to begin construction once they get regulatory approvals. It includes several that have been delayed because of public opposition, including Grain Belt Express, which would run from Missouri to Indiana.
Crocker went from being a leader of the power line protests to a co-founder of an environmental nonprofit. He didn’t support CapX2020, but he also didn’t organize grassroots opposition to it.
“The power companies did a better job of learning how to not make enemies,” he said about the success of CapX2020.
Crocker thinks the electricity system should be much less centralized, he said, with local renewable energy playing a larger role, and less reliance on transporting large amounts of power over long distances. But even within this view, he acknowledged, more transmission lines are needed.
On many of the big energy issues facing the country, Kaul and Crocker now agree. They agree that the conflict over the power line in the 1970s was largely the result of mistakes by the companies and the government that could have been avoided.
The intensity of the opposition to the line in the 1970s helped to cement the idea that building a transmission line is a contentious and costly slog.
But now, with the stakes so high as companies try to build lines to deliver renewable energy and fight climate change, developers can’t afford to continue to make the same errors in dealing with the public, said Noble of Fresh Energy.
“Transmission needs to be built at the speed and scale of the climate problem,” he said.