Wind Task Force hears opinions on transmission easements
Casper – At the May 27 meeting of the Task Force on Wind Energy, the challenge posed by collector systems and whether or not to use eminent domain to make them a reality were the main topics of discussion.
The task force, composed of four State Representatives, three State Senators and three other individuals, heard comment from many stakeholders, including the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority, the Wind Collector System Task Force, the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments and BLM Wyoming, as well as Bob Whitton of the Renewable Energy Alliance of Landowners (REAL) and Rawlins-area rancher Neils Hansen, who’s dealt extensively with easements, eminent domain and reclamation issues on his family’s ranch.
Whitton is a Wheatland-area rancher and chairman of REAL, which represents six counties and 300 members over 800,000 deeded acres in southeast Wyoming.
“We export gas, oil, coal, beef and our children from Wyoming, and we do a poor job of growing our economy so our children can get jobs and stay in the community,” Whitton told the task force. “Commercial wind development is one way to help.”
Of a collector system, which would be the transportation network between wind turbine generation and large transmission projects, Whitton said there’s a curse that accompanies most anything.
“To get power anywhere we have to have transmission lines, but when we talk about collector lines the first words often are ‘eminent domain,’” he said. “Recently I heard the Governor say we get the turbines, while the rest of the state gets another transmission line. In some respects, that’s true. Everyone makes money from wind generation, except for one group of people – the people that get the line across their property with only a single up-front payment for the life of the project.”
“We are united in that everybody hates eminent domain,” continued Whitton. “We think the use of eminent domain should be very difficult, and the road to eminent domain should be long, arduous and expensive for the person trying to use it. We’d much rather see a re-route or negotiation rather than condemnation.”
Whitton thinks a reasonable annual payment would eliminate most of the problems in leasing rights of way for collector systems. “That would bring landowners into the group and bring community support to these projects instead of tearing communities apart.”
Although Whitton said he thinks landowners should be left to negotiate however they wish, he recommends that there be an option to work together and bargain as a collective group of landowners with the transmission companies, rather than as individuals.
Whitton proposes a ballpark figure of 10 to 30 percent of the upfront payment be paid annually for the life of the project. “That adds value to the project over time, and adds value to the land instead of taking it away,” he said. “That also makes an annual income for the farmer, rancher or landowner who has to deal with it.”
“The payment itself should be based on land value,” he continued. “And the payment should be adjusted over time based on the value of the product sold.”
Returning to the collective group of landowners and how that would help the eminent domain issue, Whitton proposed that companies be forced to reasonably negotiate with 95 percent of the landowners, or 95 percent of the acreage along the route.
“If they can reasonably negotiate with 95 percent of the landowners, and have someone who will never sign, they could then go on to condemnation,” said Whitton. “Eminent domain is designed to keep a few holdouts from stopping a project, not to empower an entire project.”
Neils Hansen spoke to the task force about what happens after rights-of-way are granted across private lands. Because the Hansen ranch is completely in the checkerboard in southern Wyoming, they’ve had eminent domain threatened and used several times.
“We’ve experienced extensive oil and gas development and were in negotiation for three wind projects, but currently we don’t have any because we have the fortune, or misfortune, of having several sage grouse core areas on our property,” said Hansen.
“The problem a lot of people don’t anticipate is getting the companies to come back and follow up on reclamation,” he noted. “Weeds get introduced to the area, plus you’ve got conflict with the public coming out on roads where there were no roads before, so you’ve got people traveling in areas that wildlife and livestock had to themselves before. Then you get the trash that accompanies them, and gates left open.”
Hansen added all those problems also make it more difficult to abide by BLM grazing permits rules for rotational grazing systems and keeping stock in the appropriate places for the appropriate amount of time. “The economics of breeding systems and timing are disrupted, because people go through and open up the country and turn your neighbor’s bulls out on your cows, or the other way around,” he said.
After that introduction, Hansen agreed long-term payments for collector system easements need to be addressed.
“On our operation we’ve gone through three species of domestic livestock, plus dryland and some irrigated farming in the Wamsutter and Rawlins areas. To come in and pay me and tell me I can keep doing what I’m doing doesn’t cut it, because we’re always looking into the future at what else we can do,” he explained. “Payments, negotiations and all those things need to recognize that everything’s changing all the time, and we can’t be tied to being stagnant in our operation on a chunk of ground.”
Hansen even proposed that as the person with the transmission line, he might even need to be paid more than the landowner with the turbine. “I’ve got a footprint on my land spread across a linear distance, rather than in a congregated area, and right out the window I’ve got a set of transmission towers with no beauty to them at all. I’d submit to you that I deserve more money than the guy with the towers.”
“Having the annual payment is good, especially for next generation when my son’s out there wondering why I agreed to this, at least he gets something for it,” said Hansen.