Two rows of transmission towers intersect over a cow pasture.
The CU Powerline Project, right, crosses the Square Butte line near Wing, North Dakota. The CU project sparked an infamous rural revolt in central Minnesota in the 1970s that is informing utilities as they engage with landowners along the route of the new Northland transmission line. Credit: Creative Commons

The third powerline was the last straw for Marla Britton.

Her and her husband’s 40-acre farm near Brainerd, Minnesota, is already framed by electrical wires on the east and south. When she learned of plans for a new project running along the north end of her property, she took action.

Britton wrote to state utility regulators and contacted the companies behind the planned Northland Reliability Project. The 180-mile line will eventually make it easier to move clean electricity between central and northern Minnesota.

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Soon, a utility representative was at her doorstep to discuss her concerns and ideas for rerouting the line where it would have less impact on her and her neighbors.

“They listened to me and wrote down what I said,” Britton said. “They agreed it was way too much for my property.”

It’s yet to be seen how Britton’s feedback will be reflected in the final route, but the interaction illustrates the type of engagement that project backers say they are aiming for with the project. Taking the time today to listen to property owners and adjust plans in response to their concerns, they hope, will lessen the likelihood of drawn-out legal or political battles delaying the project later.

The utilities building the project, Minnesota Power and Great River Energy, are using a playbook informed by an infamous rural revolt against a transmission line project through central Minnesota in the 1970s. In addition to lawsuits to try to block that project in court, opponents held large rallies, blocked construction workers, and vandalized utility equipment.

Great River Energy’s vice president and chief transmission officer, Priti Patel, still recalls a senior executive years ago giving her a copy of “Powerline: The First Battle of America’s Energy War,” a book about the battle co-authored by the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, who was then a professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

The book describes what utilities should not do when developing large power lines, such as overusing eminent domain for land acquisition and dismissing the fears and concerns of rural citizens.

“I still have that [book] on my desk, because it’s a reminder … of the importance of active inclusion of voices of impacted landowners, particularly in rural Minnesota,” Patel said.

With the Northland Reliability Project, landowner engagement so far has included in-person and virtual open houses, phone calls, one-on-one meetings, handouts, emails, and an inclusive website. With a price tag of $970 million, the double-circuit, 345-kilovolt line is one of two Minnesota projects that has been fast-tracked by the regional transmission grid operator MISO for completion by the decade’s end.

The project largely follows the same path as existing smaller capacity transmission lines the utilities own, which could also help make it less controversial, said Beth Soholt, executive director of the Clean Grid Alliance, which advocates for transmission and clean energy.

“It’s just easier to site and probably construct. We’re hoping these early lines take less time to build,” Soholt said.

The two utilities combined have held 27 workshops in six months. They will continue throughout the year, reaching out to every township and municipality along the way, in addition to landowners, tribes, agencies, snowmobile groups and ATV clubs, and other organizations, according to Patel. So far, no organized opposition has emerged.

A few landowners and agencies have had concerns, said Jim Atkinson, Minnesota Power’s environmental and real estate manager, but planners have been proposing workarounds that could satisfy them. The input from stakeholder meetings “has informed the design of our route quite a bit,” he said.

Christina Hayes, executive director of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, said the two Minnesota utilities are following the best practice of early stakeholder engagement to avoid later potential litigation. Hayes said the gatherings allow power companies to meet opposition and change routes before presenting to public utility commissions.

“The Midwest is a model for the rest of the country,” Hayes said. Utilities have “fostered the sense of ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ and ‘we’re all in this together,’ and that has done a lot to keep the lights on in the Midwest as these emergency electricity situations have arisen around extreme weather.” 

Morrison County Commissioner Greg Blaine, a Stearns Electric Association and Great River Energy board member, has been representing the project at community meetings. He said the constituents and customers asked about rolling blackouts and polar vortexes that have affected the grid over the last few years. The outreach meetings “help answer some of the questions out there,” Blaine said.

He tells them the transmission project could be an economic engine for the county that will make development in this area easier. “This addresses a need,” he said.

That’s not to say the utilities and landowners have a harmonious relationship. St. Cloud attorney Nicholas Delaney said after landowners agree to easements for transmission lines, utilities sometimes play hardball during negotiations on issues such as severance damage. Landowners want utilities to help cover damage on areas outside of easements that may suffer from heavy machinery used to install pools and lines, Delaney said.

Minnesota law requires utilities to buy all or part of the properties of landowners who don’t agree to easements. Delaney said utilities move routes and try to establish good relationships to avoid the law because of the expense, and “because they’re not in the business of buying and selling land.” Under the federal Uniform Relocation Act, utilities could also have to pay moving fees, replacement housing differential costs and other charges of farmers who can prove they are being displaced by power lines.

The utilities will soon file a certificate of need and route permit with the Public Utilities Commission. If all goes according to plan, construction will start in 2027.

Correction: Minnesota Power and Great River Energy had not yet filed for a certificate of need and route permit as of the time of publication but were expected to do so soon. An earlier version of this story misstated the application’s status.

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.