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WATERLOO | Hundreds of people participated this week in meetings hosted by the Iowa Utilities Board and Rock Island Clean Line.

At issue was a proposed high voltage, direct current transmission line to move electricity from northwest Iowa to Morris, Ill.

During the sessions in Hampton, Parkersburg, Grundy Center, Waterloo and Brandon, several recurring themes developed.

Answers provided by the company's representatives and by Jim Sundemeyer, who represented the Utilities Board, weren't always well-received by crowds that were at times overtly hostile toward the project and not afraid to say so.

A few of the frequently asked or more controversial questions follow. 

Does the overhead transmission line represent a health hazard?

According to reliable sources, the answer ranges from "no" to "little if any" to "inconclusive." Clean Line cited several authorities during the meetings, including the World Health Organization, but numerous others concur.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers this: "Much of the research about power lines and potential health effects is inconclusive. Despite more than two decades of research to determine whether elevated (electric and magnetic field) exposure, principally to magnetic fields, is related to an increased risk of childhood leukemia, there is still no definitive answer. The general scientific consensus is that, thus far, the evidence available is weak and is not sufficient to establish a definitive cause-effect relationship."

The California Department of Health Services adds: "Most of the (electric and magnetic) fields we experience in a day come from sources other than power lines, such as wiring and appliances in homes and workplaces," including computers and alarm clocks.

Pat Higby, an instructor at Center for Energy and Environmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa, attended the Clean Line meeting Wednesday in Waterloo. She noted a transmission line was built across the farm she grew up near Independence in the 1960s.

"I accept them just as I accepted the power lines along the roads that brought electricity to our farm. Power and transmission lines are just a part of our modern landscape," Higby said.

A participant at one meeting referred to the late Dr. Robert Becker and his book, "Cross Currents." He was an actual surgeon and advanced many theories about the harmful effects of electric and magnetic fields. His views, though, are variously described as "dubious" and "unsubstantiated."

John Farley, a physics professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, in a paper concluded: "The power line 'issue' illustrates how persistent a health scare can be when promoted by an author who tells a frightening tale. The power line scare has certain things in common with other health scares: Magnetic fields are not understood by the public. Nor can they be felt, tasted, seen, or touched. This makes them mysterious, easily portrayable as threatening and profitable to their advocates." 

Why doesn't Clean Line build power generating facilities or erect turbines near the need for electricity?

Clean Line is designed to build and operate transmission lines, not gas- or coal-fired power plants or wind farms. As Beth Conley, Clean Line's representative in Iowa, said, the company is similar to a trucking company, which transports products for other businesses --- in this case, electricity.

Whether and where to build additional generation facilities and what kind are energy policy questions that in Iowa are addressed by the Utilities Board, Legislature, power companies and investors.

What benefit is the transmission line to Iowa and to the counties it crosses?

Clean Line will make one-time or annual payments to landowners for easements, structures and damages to their property and crops, now and in the future. In examples cited during the meetings, the total for easements and structures ranged from $99,900 in Butler County to slightly more than $115,700 in Grundy County. Some landowners would get more, others less based on a number of variables, such as the number of acres affected.

Clean Line is also required to pay $7,000 per mile in property tax. Recipients of the revenue -- about $2.5 million annually in Iowa -- include host counties and school districts. In Grundy County, for instance, the amount is $200,000.

The transmission line would likely spark development of additional wind turbines in northwest Iowa and neighboring states. Companies in Iowa are among the leading manufacturers of wind turbine components and offers a variety of supporting services, according to Iowawind.org.

The latter range from Anemometry Specialists in Alta, to United Equipment Accessories in Waverly to Power Engineering and Manufacturing in Waterloo.

Clean Line estimates 5,000 long-term, but temporary, construction jobs and 500 permanent jobs will be created. Conley, at a meeting, conceded most of the permanent jobs are contingent on additional wind turbines and most would be in northwest Iowa.

Whether these potential benefits compensate or outweigh concerns about the Clean Line project will be the subject of much debate in coming months. 

Is the project "a done deal" in Iowa?

No. The company has not yet even filed a petition requesting a franchise, and without that the initiative goes nowhere. That will, however, likely happen before June 1, according to Conley.

If approved, the company must also negotiate with landowners for easements. Failing that, Clean Line would have to request eminent domain authority, which would allow the company to erect poles and string wires over landowner's objections. The Utilities Board could reject that request, too.

Also, a number of objections to the project have already been filed. Based on the response at this week's meetings, observers might reasonably conclude many more will start flowing soon.

In Grundy County, landowner Dennis Kruger also threatened to file a class action lawsuit, which would likely delay or possibly derail the project.

Do direct current transmission lines exist anywhere else and why use them here?

The closest covers about 435 miles from Coal Creek Station in Underwood, N.D., to a converter station in Buffalo, Minn. It is owned and operated by Great River Energy. 

The Edison Tech Center in New York describes high voltage, direct current as "the oldest and newest method of distance transmission." One of the first lines went up in 1882 from Miesbach to Munich in Germany. China and European countries use the technology extensively today.

Most lines in the United States transmit alternating current, but direct current offers advantages. Clean Line representatives noted to carry the amount of energy proposed would require three parallel lines for alternating current. Direct current can get the job done with one transmission line, meaning fewer poles and lattice towers, less cost, less energy loss and a significantly smaller footprint on landowners' properties.

According to Siemens AG, a multinational company involved in energy, the demand for high voltage, direct current transmission globally is increasing rapidly.

"In the last 40 years, HVDC transmission links with a total capacity of 100 gigawatts were installed, equivalent to the capacity of 100 large power plants. Another 250 gigawatts will be added in this decade alone," according to the company.

Who owns Clean Line?

The information is available on the company's and on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's websites. Like many companies, ownership is a multi-layered proposition featuring subsidiaries and parent companies.

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Regional Editor for the Courier

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