Wind Power Gets Smart

Timlynn Babitsky | Issues: Strategies & Tactics,Power Grid Problems | Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

by Timlynn Babitsky
The aging transmission infrastructure across the US is indeed the bottleneck for renewable energy. But in our rush to “fix” this problem, we need to avoid making the same mistakes in building out the transmission grid now that were made in the 1970s.

If you are too young to remember, or if this dirt has been swept too far under the rug, take a look into the hostile 1970s power-line protests in west-central Minnesota with their shootings, vandalized towers, felony arrests, and home visits by the governor to calm things down. Political parties, churches, civic organizations, and businesses in communities throughout the region got involved.

The controversy arose from the routing of a high-voltage power line through western and central Minnesota. With 659 towers placed every one-quarter mile on the property of 476 landowners, things got really hot when many perceived that the federal and state governments had more concern for wildlife areas and highway rights of way than for protecting landowners’ productive farmland.

To avoid making this very same mistake in our rush to string new power lines, we need to think “smart.” And, so there is talk about a “smart grid,” “smart power lines,” and can we assume even “smart power users.”

According to Wikipedia, today’s power grid was created in 1896, based on Nikola Tesla’s design published in 1888. Many implementation decisions that are still in use today were made based on the limited, alternating current technology available 120-years ago. A Smart power grid would bring the communication and computing power of the Internet to the transmission, distribution and use of electricity so that it can operate more efficiently, reliably and safely.

Western Resource Advocates have developed a transmission planning platform to ensure that new power lines will be “smart.” WRA smart lines involve “…efficiency/distributed generation, clean energy sources and lands/wildlife protection.”

For WRA the smartest power line is the one that is never built. Focusing on local distributed generation – e.g., rooftop solar, single wind turbines and community wind — can eliminate the need for new power plants, some new transmission lines and associated corridors. Working in the western US, WRA’s real focus is on planning, locating, and mitigating power lines “…in a manner that protects the region’s treasured wildlife, land, air and water resources.

Do they include landowners in this region’s treasures?

The Smart Grid Newsletter has an extensive plan for developing a Smart Transmission Grid. Their plan has six major steps and four major milestones all guided by the following fundamental characteristics to keep them on track.

The Smart Grid will:

  • Enable active participation by consumers
  • Accommodate all generation and storage options
  • Enable new products, services and markets
  • Provide power quality for the digital economy
  • Optimize asset utilization and operate efficiently
  • Anticipate and respond to system disturbances (self-heal)
  • Operate resiliently against attack and natural disaster

The US Department of Energy has a Federal Smart Grid Task Force, a 44 page Grid 2030 Vision , a Modern Grid Strategy , and a Smart Grid Newsletter. There is also a downloadable Smart Grid Diagram, and Smart Grid Activities .

As you read through the USDA and WRA Smart Grid website content, you will surely agree that all these ideas and agendas are necessary. We absolutely do need to focus on the delivery technology and the reliability of the infrastructure, but somewhere in here we seem to have forgotten the landowners’ protest of 1970s Minnesota.

Have we gotten so focused on a Smart delivery technology that we ignore Smart planning for the placement of those power lines?

Let’s make sure that Smart Grid planners do not ignore the lessons from our own history.

Powerline: The First Battle of America’s Energy War by noted grassroots activist/academic Paul David Wellstone, and Barry M. Casper tells the story of transmission line agendas gone awry in 1970s Minnesota.

Larry Long’s song “The Pope County Blues” memorializes the 1970s rebellion of conservative farmers who were turned into rebels over power lines being strung across their land. (Note, click on the link here then scroll down to the Living in a Rich Man’s World song list to download.)

Very special thanks to for their recent reminder on the Minnesota protest history. To visit their site and to read more on this “other side” of wind power, take a good look here: Eco-friendly wind power’s growth to deliver less-popular side effect . It inspired me to look into yet another issue we wind power activists need to think and talk about.


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