Power play: Project to move power through Nebraska Sandhills has stalled … for 12 years.

The R-Project transmission line was supposed to be done by 2018. But not a single mile of the 226-mile line has been built. Why?

Lemoyne Dailey, a long-time rancher, says he has to be careful how he “makes his footprints” when he works on his land near Thedford. 

The rolling Sandhills are a fragile environment, Dailey said, the grasses and sands easily torn up and tough to restore.

Over the past decade, Dailey’s been fielding visits from utility workers surveying his land, planning a power transmission route and asking for a signature on the dotted line. 

He’s one of a group of Sandhills landowners steadfastly refusing to sign. 

“You don’t know the amount of damage you’re going to do to this country, putting in a project like the R line,” Dailey said.

The rancher is speaking of the Nebraska Public Power District’s R-Project, a controversial 345,000-volt transmission line that would stretch 226 miles from Sutherland past Thedford and straight through Dailey’s land. 

Lemoyne Dailey removes twine from a hay bale for heifers Feb. 13, 2024, at his ranch in Thomas County. Dailey uses hay to supplement his cattle’s natural grass diet on his Sandhills ranch. He and some other landowners have thus far refused to let the Nebraska Public Power District build a long-proposed transmission line across their land, citing environmental concerns and questioning the project’s tie to wind energy. Photo by Andrew Bottrell for the Flatwater Free Press

The line was first proposed in 2012, meant to deliver power across the country and make the U.S. electrical grid more reliable. 

But 12 years later, not a single mile of the R-Project has been built. Instead, the project has faced a wall of intense opposition from an array of foes: environmental groups, conservative state senators, Native tribes and ranchers like Dailey.

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Building demand

Southwest Power Pool, a regional power regulator, directed NPPD back in 2012 to build a new high-voltage transmission line through central Nebraska.

A planning study listed the date for when the line would need to be built in order to meet growing American energy demand: Jan. 1, 2018.

That date came and went as NPPD worked to get approval for its plans. Early construction on the line started in June 2019 after the project, which will impact several endangered Sandhills species, received a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Less than a month later, the project ground to a halt again when a group of opponents filed a lawsuit challenging the permit.

The current proposed route of the R-Project transmission line, a 226-mile line which a regional power regulator and the Nebraska Public Power District are seeking to run across the Sandhills. Map courtesy of NPPD

The subsequent delays have forced NPPD to use diesel generators to meet demand in north-central Nebraska during the heat of the past three summers, NPPD said in its 2023 “R-Project Migratory Bird Conservation Plan.”  The Southwest Power Pool, which regulates power in 14 states across the southwest, west and Great Plains, also had to reconfigure the transmission system and use higher-cost generation methods to alleviate congestion in the area. 

The grid operates like an interstate highway system to move large amounts of power long distances, said Mike Herzog, founder of Resilient Electric Analytics. Weaknesses in one state can impact others in the region, leading to situations like SPP using rolling blackouts to manage power demand during the 2021 Texas freeze.

The R line is also important, planners and advocates say, because its planned route stretches through eight counties in the heart of Nebraska – an area where future wind energy projects could generate more power to transmit along the R line and throughout the state and region.

“In Western Nebraska it’s windy, there’s wide open spaces, and the population’s not there,” Herzog said. “Here’s this huge potential for renewable energy in a space where the population centers aren’t.”

There’s huge demand for wind where the R-Project would go, Herzog said, with projects queued up ready to build and connect to the high-voltage transmission line.

“The Service has identified nine renewable energy projects that are reasonably foreseeable and are related to the R-Project (either through interconnection or contingency on R-Project for overall network upgrade),” FWS spokeswoman Adriana Zorrilla said in an email.

But new wind turbines are seen as a negative outcome for many R-Project opponents, who fear the line will bring more disruption in the Sandhills. 

“The concern is that future wind energy development will compound the damage done by the line itself,” Brent Steffen, a Sandhills landowner, said.

Cattle wait to feed on a bale of hay in the late afternoon light at the Dailey Ranch in Thomas County. Photo by Andrew Bottrell for the Flatwater Free Press

Fickle cranes, rugged terrain 

Opponents of the R-Project are concerned about the long-term impact that constructing and maintaining the large line will have on the Sandhills’ unique terrain and wildlife. 

After the proposed line leaves the substation east of Thedford, it will go straight east through very rugged and isolated terrain, Steffen said. 

NPPD’s permit focuses primarily on the threatened American burying beetle, which will be harmed during construction. Several other endangered plant and animal species call the Sandhills home.

Plants in the Sandhills are fragile and have adapted specifically to thrive there, said Tony Baker, legislative aide for Sen. Tom Brewer, who represents the region.

“The ranchers understand how to take care of that ground,” Baker said. “And they know what will happen if you come in there with all this heavy equipment to build 120 miles of power line, right through the most virgin, beautiful part of the Sandhills we’ve got in Nebraska.”

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The R-Project will cross the migration corridor of endangered whooping cranes where they funnel together around the Platte River and Sandhills wetlands to roost on their way North, said Kristal Stoner, executive director of Audubon Great Plains, which supported the lawsuit.

“We have to be very cautious about the decisions we make on the landscape so that we don’t put things out there that are going to cause harm to these birds,” Stoner said.

Birds, including whooping cranes, might strike the steel structures and die, especially over the full lifetime of the project, Stoner said. 

Less than 550 whooping cranes exist in the wild now, and they reproduce slowly, so every crane matters for the population’s recovery.

In the revised conservation plan, NPPD has committed to marking the entire R-Project with bird flight diverters to reduce the strike risk, and also adding diverters to 124 miles of existing transmission lines.

NPPD also reassessed the amount of land that will be temporarily disturbed by construction, doubling the number of impacted acres from 258 to 527, Zorrilla said. As part of the plan, NPPD will buy and protect 557 acres of suitable American burying beetle habitat to offset the damage.

Marks of history 

Nebraska’s Sandhills still hold several markers of the region’s history. There are archaeological sites, burial grounds from tribes and wagon ruts from the Oregon and Mormon trails near the proposed line.

In its newly released plans, NPPD adjusted the proposed route to go around O’Fallon’s Bluff, a National Register of Historic Places site significant to the westbound trails and the Pony Express, adding a mile to the total length of the line.

Under the National Historic Preservation Act, FWS is required to review historic and culturally significant sites that the project might impact, which includes consulting with tribes. 

Roughly one million Sandhill cranes migrate through central Nebraska each year. They will also be impacted by the transmission line, though they are far more plentiful than endangered whooping cranes. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it will protect birds by marking the proposed transmission line with bird flight diverters to reduce the strike risk. Photo by Lori Potter for the Flatwater Free Press

FWS sent letters to 19 tribes about the project between 2014 and 2018. Only two of those tribes responded, according to the project’s original 2018 Final Environmental Impact Statement. 

None of those letters reached Ione Quigley at the Rosebud Sioux’s tribal historic preservation office. Quigley said she found out about the project when a group of Sandhills landowners reached out in 2021. 

“I’ve been quite busy here trying to get a hold of some of the other tribes and letting them know that they need to wake up to this, because it is a pretty big project that will impact not only people but the land itself, the water aquifer,” Quigley said.

The Rosebud Sioux tribe is worried that the project hasn’t focused on potential impacts on the aquifer, with plans in place to drill 40 feet down during construction. A hydrologist with the tribe was appalled when she showed him the project’s plans, Quigley said.

“When it’s done, then people will see what an impact it will have for future generations, and not only for the two legged people but for the four legged, the winged ones, the crawlers,” Quigley said. “It will have an impact on all of life.”

Mark Porath, FWS Nebraska ecological field office supervisor, joined the project in recent years and has been expanding its outreach to 31 tribes. FWS has sent more letters and email follow-ups, Porath said, and reached out to cultural resource officers and tribal historic preservation officers like Quigley.

“Quite honestly, we’re leaning on a lot of their knowledge that they have that we don’t have,” Porath said. “So that’s an expertise that we don’t have, but we think it’s important that needs to be incorporated.”

FWS is working now on a cultural resources inventory report, Porath said, which will detail the potentially impacted historical sites and include input from tribes and other organizations like History Nebraska.

Continuing resistance

A power line already crosses Dailey’s Sandhills ranch. NPPD came to do maintenance on a tower on one of his steep sand hills a few years ago. 

Dailey told the workers to drive around the hill’s far side to avoid causing damage. When they came to do the work, Dailey said, the technicians didn’t listen.

“They climbed the hill and just tore up the side of that hill really bad,” Dailey said.

Lemoyne Dailey drives a bale of hay out into a field to feed to a group of first-year heifers on his Sandhills ranch. Photo by Andrew Bottrell for the Flatwater Free Press

NPPD offered to pay him for any damage from the work, but Dailey didn’t want their money. He asked them to come out and restore it themselves, so they would understand how the R-Project might hurt the Sandhills.

Dailey and Steffen are both refusing to sign the paperwork that would allow NPPD to build the line on their land. They plan to keep saying no.

“I’m just hoping and praying that something else comes up and stops them and they just abandon it,” Dailey said.

Steffen thinks that if the updated permit gets approved, the R-Project is likely to be challenged again in federal court.

The R-Project is 12 years old now, and six years past its original completion date. 

The fight appears far from over. 

“Even if they do get the go ahead from Fish and Wildlife, and they don’t get challenged in federal court again, and they do start construction and get it built there, they’re now looking at eight or nine years down the road from their initial planning and millions of dollars in increased expenditure to do it,” Steffen said.

By Destiny Herbers

Destiny is a Roy W. Howard fellow through the Scripps Howard Foundation. She earned her master’s degree in journalism at the University of Maryland. While at UMD, she covered NASA and Congress for Capital News Service, reporting on everything from cheese served at state dinners to future missions to Mars. She worked on the Howard Center’s award-winning project, “Mega Billons,” an investigation of state lotteries, and was part of an ongoing Associated Press investigation into law enforcement practices. When she isn’t reporting, Destiny loves swing dancing and thrift shopping.


Thank you for your coverage. I own a ranch in the northeastern corner of Garfield County. I have dealt with this proposed route since it’s inception. I have even had NPPD officers out to my place. NPPD needs to come on my place to anchor the line as it turns north in Garfield County. This will be hard on my land. It seems they could have chosen a more suitable route following highway right of ways rather than bully and threaten landowners as they have been. Placing these 155 foot towers is pollutingp and a wildlife hazard besides. I doubt very much that the electricity transported will stay in Nebraska but will be destined for larger cities to the east. In addition these towers will transport cable lines, another source of income for NPPD. This project was improperly “sold” to the public from the beginning. There are also legitimate questions as to the long term effect of high kilovolt transport on the people and animals including the burying beatle exposed.
As technology changes, think nuclear, these lines may become outdated in a few years and forever be a blight on the land without any utility.

It’s time to rein in NPPD’s heavy-handed tactics that it’s employed for decades.

Anyone who’s paying attention would know that wind development in NE (especially the Sandhills) and elsewhere is coming to a halt due its damage to flora and fauna, and high price tag. This line will carry nothing.

Instead of building obsolete lines, maybe NPPD should re-focus on developing AFFORDABLE energy sources.

Stop progress at all cost! Then do not bitch about higher electric rates or shortages of electricity during high demand! Maybe we should go back to burning cow chips for heat and whale oil in lamps for light

thanks so much for this info. I plan to incorporate it in a talk that I’m preparing for our local chapter of Westerners

Yes Nppd needs to answer to the people, we had reliable and great electricity until the south west power pool became a part of the corruption, without the consent of the people, Nebraska (supposedly PUBLIC) power made that decision, now they think it is okay to do whatever they choose to. They need stopped. Usfw is just as corrupt they have no intention of preserving wildlife or that is so evident once again as they are removing all cedar tree shelter belts but not removing lone wolf cedars, which is what is called management that most people do to control cedar spread from their shelter belts. This is what they call their rewilding project🤦



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