WOODWARD — Her story wasn’t so much about the calf that was saved, but the tree that was lost.
After learning some details about a 350-mile power line planned to connect the massive Wind Catcher wind farm in the Panhandle to a substation to be built near Tulsa, rancher Candyce Kline raised the calf story as an example of the unknown challenges facing that line and to air her doubts, and others’, about the idea of completing the largest power line Oklahoma has ever seen in a period of less than three years.
When the cattle count came up one short one day at her 1,200-acre Ellendale Springs Ranch, a portion of family property that dates back to 1915, about 30 miles northeast of Woodward, she went looking.
“I heard him bawling and found him down in there,” she said, pointing to a brush-lined hole in the rolling high prairie Gypsum Hills accentuated by white outcroppings of the porous stone.
The rancher and a friend worked up a system of pulleys and ropes and used a big overhanging tree to lift the calf out of the hole that was “like a drain in the bottom, perfectly round and about 15 feet deep.”
As she retold the story she had to describe the situation because a few years later the hole now is more than 40 yards across, has steep, unstable sides, and is bottomless.
That big tree?
“It keeps expanding,” Kline said. “The hole swallowed that tree.”
She knows of at least 30 other sinkholes on her 1,200 acres. She said she can only imagine how many are just under the surface of the Gypsum Hills region — home to the nearby Alabaster Caverns State Park, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s Selman Bat Cave, and right next door to the University of Central Oklahoma’s Selman Living Laboratory, all of which are home to miles of caves and hundreds of thousands of bats.
Concern about the geology is just one reason Kline, two neighbors and the former director of the Selman Living Laboratory met at her ranch this month to explain why they think routing the line through the area is a mistake.
Wind Catcher, a partnership between Public Service Company of Oklahoma and Southwestern Electric Power Co., is a $4.5 billion project aimed at providing clean, affordable wind energy while boosting the state’s economy, according to a statement from PSO.
It includes a 2,000-megawatt wind farm in development with 800 turbines in Texas and Cimarron counties that is being built by Chicago-based Invenergy. General Electric is providing the turbines. Subject to regulatory approvals, the power companies will acquire the wind farm from Invenergy when it is operational in 2020.
American Electric Power Transmission will build the power line, which will connect to a new substation to be built north of Tulsa.
The final route for the power line is to be announced in early 2018, and the line is expected to go into service in late 2020, according to Tiffini Jackson, PSO director of communications.
The final route will be determined with feedback gathered from landowners at a series of public meetings that wrapped up in October, and through an online open house option, according to Jackson.
The Wind Catcher Connection project, with its 765-kilovolt line, will be larger than any other in Oklahoma, and the Wind Catcher wind farm is the largest of its kind in the U.S.
“PSO is one of the largest purchasers of wind power in Oklahoma. Wind energy has helped us provide our customers with clean, reliable energy at stable and affordable prices,” Jackson wrote in an email. “Our long-term plan is to increase reliance on clean energy resources, like natural gas, wind and solar energy. When it comes on line, Wind Catcher will be the lowest cost energy on our system.”
Jackson said AEP pioneered big power lines in the 1960s as an improvement over running several smaller lines.
“AEP maintains and operates roughly 2,000 miles of 765 kV line, the first of which was constructed in 1969. All of these lines are east of the Mississippi,” she wrote.
Jackson noted that the line would be roughly 350 miles long with towers every 1,000 to 1,500 feet along the route — that’s 1,400 to 1,750 towers. Each tower is 140 feet tall with a base that is 40 to 50 feet across. The right-of-way will be 200 feet wide.
By comparison, wind turbine tower structures are 212 feet tall with 116-foot-long blades.
Kline said she drove to her ranch the day after the community meeting in Woodward and checked the proposed route across her property. She almost fell into a sinkhole she had not seen before.
“I parked the truck, and when I walked around, I saw this right next to it and, ‘Uh-oh!’ I moved the truck right away,” she said as she stood near a hole not much bigger around than a truck tire but of indiscernible depth.
“You couldn’t build towers across here,” she said. “It’s not just the towers, but it’s driving the equipment across here and disturbing all this; you don’t know where these sinkholes will appear,” she said.
Sue Selman, owner of the nearby Selman Ranch and a longtime prairie chicken advocate, laid out a list of concerns.
“There is no way any power transmission line coming out of the Panhandle is going to miss important prairie chicken habitat because the best prairie chicken habitat in Oklahoma is in Beaver County. There’s just no way to miss it,” she said. “It is an issue, but right now our main concerns are the bats and destroying their (hibernation area), the erosion it could cause and the idea of building a power line across this area with all these sinkholes.”
“If they would move it to the south 20 miles or so, that would be better,” said Bill Caire, a leading authority on Oklahoma’s bat populations and former director of the Selman Living Laboratory.
The lab was created to protect the Selman Cave System, which has nearly three miles of passageways and several entrances on the laboratory lands and the neighboring ranches. It is home to the largest hibernating population of cave myotis bats in Oklahoma at 70,000 to 100,000, as well as four other species, including the rare Townsend’s big-eared bat, he said.
The construction process and the resulting structures could have untold impacts and potentially violate the Oklahoma Cave Law, which prohibits activities that can harm or disturb the biota of any cave, Caire said.
In addition to the bats, the caves and the surrounding gypsum outcroppings are home to dozens of species of plants and animals unique to that habitat, he said.
Power lines are known to emit UV light and electromagnetic fields that affect insect behaviors, but it’s unclear what impact that may have on bats, which feed on insects.
“It’s an unknown, but it’s a concern,” Caire said.
One of the proposed routes would put the line just south of the Selman Bat Cave, part of a system that’s home to 150,000 to 300,000 migrating Mexican free-tailed bats each summer, he said.
“That would have the line immediately south in their migration route,” Caire said. “We don’t know if that’s a problem, but that’s why you research and study before you build. It would be such a shame to damage these cave systems.”
Justin Voigt summed up the concerns after looking over his land, which adjoins the Selman Lab property. His property has cave entrances and sinkholes, but the landscape free of power lines is valuable as well, he said.
“This is a unique place, a special part of the country, and I don’t think they really know what they’re getting into up here,” he said. “The timeline — they’re doing this too fast. I don’t see how they’re going to be able to do any kind of environmental study to know what kinds of problems that kind of construction could cause.”
Jackson said the community meetings gave the company “a lot about our state that could not be learned looking at maps” and noted that PSO is considering the topography and geology of the Gypsum Hills.
“At this time we’re still working to identify a proposed route,” she said. “Once identified, a siting study will be prepared that documents our process, outreach efforts, data gathering effort, and the environmental, cultural, and land use considerations used in the selection of the proposed route.
“This document is not an Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement under the federal National Environmental Policy Act, but includes much of the same information and analysis. Any additional analysis or process requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act will only be identified once a Proposed Route is ultimately selected,” she wrote.
No more community meetings are scheduled along the route, but Jackson said PSO and Wind Catcher representatives will be meeting with individuals and that the virtual open house on the PSO website includes all of the project details, including maps and technical data, and still provides a link for people to provide comments.