Unraveling the Mystery of the Upper Midwest’s High Voltage Grid

This is the second in our series looking at the development of clean energy transmission in Upper Iowa. Writer Loren Flaugh gave a talk earlier this year at Iowa State University, sharing his interest in understanding the role transmission plays in helping our small towns grow.

In Part 1, Loren wrote how his interest quickened when he realized just how many high voltage transmission projects were in the offing. He sensed that MISO – the Midcontinent Independent Systems Operator – played an integral part. Yet, he wondered, how much did farmers and landowners really know about MISO and its impact on farming operations This episode tells how he found out.

Part 2: Primer on Renewable Energy and Transmission

I decided to conduct an unscientific experiment in the summer of 2012. At noon one day, I walked to the local Cenex gas station/convenience store armed with but one simple question. Cenex is the local farmer’s hideout. Sure enough, six or seven farmers were present drinking coffee, eating, and pondering typical farmer stuff.

After listening awhile, I asked if anyone was aware of MISO and what its primary purpose was. Coming as no surprise, nobody knew what the acronym MISO stood for, so I explained its origin. Still, that didn’t seem to provoke any awareness.

I explained that MISO was the independent, nonprofit entity that oversees the high voltage grid in the upper Midwest. I also explained that MISO’s primary mission was to get electricity to the consumer at the lowest possible cost.

I reported my results to Tina Potthoff at MidAmerican Energy. I explained my suspicions, my approach, and the results. I told her the typical Midwest farmer was clueless of MISO’s relevance. I argued that MISO and the utility companies did a poor job at getting useful information down to the level of the ordinary farmer.

Later in December, the Iowa Utilities Board and many MidAmerican Energy high voltage transmission engineers and right-of-way agents came to Hartley, Iowa. This was the first joint IUB/MidAmerican Energy landowner’s informational meeting to reveal the newly proposed MVP #3 345 kV high voltage transmission line project from O’Brien County to Webster County near Fort Dodge.

Sure enough, MidAmerican had people there to explain why MISO exists and how these MVP projects were analyzed and conceived over many years. MidAmerican’s MISO compliance officer, Jeff Gust, explained why the large Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs) are vital for maintaining and upgrading the U.S. high voltage electric infrastructure.

He also explained the designation of renewable energy zones scattered throughout the 12-state region. These were designated in response to the 64,000 MW of wind requests that MISO had received prior to 2010. Though MISO doesn’t have the authority to insist that wind energy developers build wind farms in certain areas, it is aware of where wind energy firms are likely to prospect for future wind energy development. Local farmers and landowners were totally clueless of this new policy.

Perhaps some lessons can be learned. I wonder how many times MISO senior high voltage transmission analysts and engineers have appeared on some of the early morning Ag programs broadcast in most Midwest TV markets like Ag Day or U.S. Farm Report?

TV programs like these are viewed widely throughout the region and are what reach the ordinary farmer and landowner. MISO should consider having representatives appear on these TV programs at least once or twice a year to explain long-range transmission expansion intentions.

Any future substantial upgrade to the high voltage transmission infrastructure will require a much stronger three-way partnership between landowners, public utility companies, and both the federal and state regulating agencies.

Perhaps some of you will work for MISO in some capacity for a career. So keep this notion in mind. Maybe I’ll even see one of you on my TV some morning at 5:00.

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The second article in the series examines the benefits of property taxes to a county with a wind farm. "For a 2007 Wallace’s Farmer Magazine feature story, the county assessor and I calculated, year by year, just how much impact the construction of a wind farm would have for county coffers. The results were staggering." You can find Loren’s full presentation here.