From the first public meeting back in late 2010, work on educating the public on the proposed Rock Island Clean Line transmission project has been ongoing throughout the area. After a public meeting last Fall, officials and representatives of Rock Island Clean Line have been meeting individually with landowners to answer questions about the proposed 500-mile direct-current electrical transmission system across Iowa.
On Thursday of last week, Rock Island Clean Line representatives were in Emmetsburg, meeting individually with landowners in the county to answer questions on a personal basis. "We've been holding 'Office hours' at locations across the state to talk individually with landowners in this most recent set of meetings," explained Beth Conley, Manager of the Rock Island Clean Line for the state of Iowa. "These meetings are just an opportunity for landowners to sit down one-on-one with a member of our team and ask questions."
According to Conley, representatives of Rock Island Clean Line have also been signing voluntary easements for the transmission line with landowners since the start of the year. "Since the Iowa Utilities Board hearing last Fall, we had been meeting pretty consistently with landowners until planting season got underway, and then we started back up again once planting was finished. We've definitely welcomed the opportunity to sit down with people at their own table in their own homes to answer specific questions they have had about the project."
While there are concentrated campaigns underway opposing the construction of the transmission line, Conley acknowledges that there have been concerns raised about the RICL in the discussions. "People have a lot of concerns and I respect that. I know if I were a landowner and I was being approached about putting a transmission line across my property, I would definitely have some concerns. Our goal is the keep getting honest and accurate information out there to the people."
One item that has changed from the initial presentations to landowners has to do with compensation to landowners who grant easements to RICL.
"We heard people asking why there wasn't a cost of living increase for granting easements, and we have decided that is a fair request," Conley said, "We have added a two-percent escalator to the annual payment agreements for property owners, and to be clear, as long as a pole or structure is on a landowner's property, there will be a payment, and the easement for the structure will follow the ownership of the land."
"And, for those landowners who have already signed voluntary easements, the two-percent escalator will be put into effect for them as well," Conley added. "We want to be fair with our partners in this project."
With the proposed transmission line running 24 miles across the width of Palo Alto County, approximately 75 landowner easements are required for the project. During Thursday's visit, some 20 landowners met with Rock Island Clean Line officials in Emmetsburg to ask questions and learn more about the project.
While the routing of the transmission line has created some opposition, Conley says the route across Iowa, and Palo Alto County, for that matter, is still somewhat flexible.
"We did the best that we could in determining placement of structures on the route," Conley said. "But, there is still more information to be gotten from landowners, and in some cases, some adjustments have been made and can be made in the future. We're getting closer to a final route."
While a majority of questions raised about the project center around property-specific issues, Conley said many of the questions project staffers also answer explain the regulatory process with the Iowa Utilities Board. "People have been impressed with the regulatory process involved with the Iowa Utilities Board."
Currently, Rock Island Clean Line is awaiting a decision on their application case with the Illinois Commerce Commission, which they filed at the end of last year.
"We expect to hear a ruling in Illinois in the near future," Conley said. "We anticipate filing our case with the Iowa Utilities Board at the end of this year and would expect a decision here in 2015. With a favorable decision, construction of the line could begin in 2016 with the first power being sent down the line in 2017-2018.
As originally presented, the transmission line would start at a converter station in O'Brien county, turning electricity generated through wind power into Direct Current (DC) and sending it across Iowa and into Illinois near Chicago. The project could bring as much as $7 billion in investment, largely to a 75-mile area of northwest Iowa that includes Clay and O'Brien counties. In addition, Conley noted about 500 permanent operations and maintenance wind energy jobs would become available.
"It's a situation of 'if you build it, they will come," Conley explained. "We have been having conversations with several wind farm developers, and we will be entering into capacity contracts, where they are actually purchasing transmission capacity on the line for the power their facilities will generate. That's actually how the project will be paid for."
Conley notes that the mix of energy supplies in the nation is changing, looking more towards renewable energy sources, with an eye towards more cost-efficient production of energy. Coupled with recent guidelines released by the Environmental Protection Agency in regards to carbon emissions and reductions in power generated by coal-fired generating plants, wind energy appears to hold huge promise for the nation's energy needs.
But for now, the primary emphasis for Rock Island Clean Line is getting the word out.
"The biggest concern we hear about the project is that it is a new process, using newer technology, and people are understandably reluctant," Conley said. "It takes some time to process all of the information on new technology, and that's why we're coming back to the area time to time to share new information and above all, to keep bringing honest and accurate information to the people in Palo Alto County. But, we are very encouraged by the number of voluntary easements that we have received for the project."