District plans public hearings along proposed route of Nebraska Sandhills power line project

IndustriesAssociated Press

Nebraska Public Power District plans to begin hearings along the route of its recently approved 345,000-volt transmission line through the Nebraska Sandhills while some ranchers and others decide whether to take their opposition to court.

The Nebraska Power Review Board on Friday approved the $328 million project. The district told the board in its filing that the project is needed to increase reliability of the transmission network, relieve congestion and provide more capacity to carry electricity from wind turbines in remote parts of the state.

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The ranchers and others who spoke in opposition Friday said the line posed a threat to the Sandhills' fragile ecosystem of grasses and dunes.

"I think it's a tragedy for Nebraska," Robert Price, a Burwell rancher, said after the vote. "The Sandhills deserves to be protected, and it's going to have challenges in the future."

Sarah Sortum, whose family ranch is on one of the alternate routes for the 220-mile line, said Monday that members of her group will have to decide what price they can pay for their opposition to the project.

"A big concern is if we would appeal and lose, we would be responsible for their court costs," Sortum said. "We can't afford to lose our ranches over this."

District spokesman Mark Becker said Monday that at next month's hearings, district officials will explain the need for the transmission line, discuss issues of access and easement and gather more information about routing.

The Southwest Power Pool, a regional electricity transmission group that includes the Nebraska district, is paying 93 percent of the project cost, with the district paying the remainder. Becker said he couldn't yet say whether that remaining $23 million would require a rate increase for the district's Nebraska customers.

The transmission line would start at NPPD's Gerald Gentleman coal power plant near Sutherland and go north to a new substation near Thedford, Becker said, then east to another new substation in Holt County near the Wheeler county line, tying into a Western Area Power Administration line, which is part of a system that delivers hydroelectric power and related services within a 15-state region of the central and western U.S.

The new Nebraska line has the support of Bold Nebraska, which has been a firm opponent of building an oil pipeline across the Sandhills. That group has said it supports the transmission line because it can help renewable energy in the state.