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Lights Going Out on the High Plains as Population Shrinks

North Dakota has lost more than half its farms since the 1940s, when electricity came to rural areas. Now, idle power lines pose fire dangers.

March 21, 2004|James MacPherson | Associated Press Writer

ROBINSON, N.D. — John Randall will never forget the day more than 50 years ago when electric power came to the countryside.

"It was really something to see when all these farms got lit up," Randall recalled.

Randall, 76, has been farming all his life in Robinson, a central North Dakota town of about 70 people -- just as his father and grandfather did. In 1949, he became the first in the family to farm with electricity. And he may be one of the few left in the area.

"There aren't too many farms around here to light up anymore," Randall said. "It's gone from dark to light to dark."

Thousands of miles of power lines that once brought the promise of better lives to farmers now lead to abandoned farmsteads that have fallen victim to a harsh rural economy.

About 20% of the state's 60,000 miles of rural power lines are eligible to be "retired" because they are not being used, said Dennis Hill, general manager of the North Dakota Assn. of Rural Electric Cooperatives.

"There are lines out here that go to nowhere," said Robert Spencer, general manager of the Northern Plains Electric Cooperative.

North Dakota has 17 electric cooperatives that serve about 200,000 people. Electric co-ops are set up as nonprofits that attempt to keep energy costs as low as possible.

Unused power lines are expensive to maintain, and they pose fire danger. When no one is around to alert companies about a power outage due to a downed line, the possibility of a prairie fire increases.

It costs about $25,000 to install a mile of power lines and poles, Spencer said, and about $2,500 a mile to tear them down. A study nearly 10 years ago found that it would cost about $130 million to remove all unused power lines, money that the co-ops generally don't have.

Farmsteads that have been taken off the grid usually have been those linked by power lines that created safety problems, Hill said.

Spencer's co-op, which serves an area south of Jamestown to the Canadian border, has the largest number of miles of power lines in the state, with about 6,900. Ten percent of the co-op's 12,000 services are idle.

"Nobody is paying a bill on them," he said.

Randall calls it the reverse of rural electrification.

The Rural Electrification Administration, founded in 1935, financed the extension of transmission lines to rural areas in the United States. At the time, less than 10% of rural residents had electricity, compared to 90% for urban dwellers.

The REA required two customers per mile before it would lend co-ops money to build a power line in a region. "That was the density needed to make it economically feasible," Spencer said.

Today, many rural areas in North Dakota average less than a customer a mile. The nationwide average is about six customers a mile.

Richard Rathge, director of the state data center at North Dakota State University, said the number of farms in the state peaked at 84,000 in the early 1940s during the drive for rural electrification and has been going down ever since. Today, the state has about 30,000 farms.

Randall is one of the Northern Plains Co-op's better customers. He still owns two farms and two homes, and has power running to all four sites. He said the area began getting power in late 1930s, although most of it came in the mid-1940s.

Electricity allowed farmers to operate welders to fix equipment instead of hauling it to a blacksmith for repairs. Farmers could also run water to their pastures, thanks to electric pumps. And there were the much-welcomed comforts of lights, radios and water heaters.

Randall said rural electrification probably benefited big cities as much as it did rural areas because farmers would travel to cities to buy electric farm equipment and appliances.

In southwestern North Dakota, Don Frankland, manager of Mor-Gran-Sou Electric Cooperative, said his co-op has about 700 services -- including farmsteads, pumps and other accounts -- that are idle. He said power was cut to some because for years no one paid to keep it on.

Mike Schaefbauer said restoring the power to an old farmstead he owned near Raleigh would cost about $30,000, and the lack of power made it nearly impossible to sell his farm. He had offers in December, but they were too low to accept, he said.

Most of the state's co-ops have a minimum service charge of about $12 a month to keep the power flowing. One customer pays for six miles of line that leads to a duck-hunting cabin, Spencer said.

"If someone is paying the bill, we keep the line hot," Frankland said.

Most farmers, however, would like to see unused power lines come down.

"They don't want to farm around them," Spencer said. "Typically, the land is worth more if there are no poles on it."

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