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Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

In the 1970s, some Minnesota farmers were very upset about a plan to route power lines across their fields

photo of powerlines across farm field
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Power line over Minnesota farmland, undated. Minnesota Powerline Oral History Project (OH 25). Oral History Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
The construction of a high-voltage power line across west-central Minnesota in the 1970s created a dispute about land use and energy needs that pitted farmers against large utilities and governmental agencies. The farmers began their opposition to the line by appearing at governmental hearings and in court proceedings. When those methods proved unsuccessful, protesters employed more confrontational methods.

Cooperative Power Association (CPA) and United Power Association (UPA) were utilities that distributed electricity to rural electrical cooperatives, which sold the electricity to consumers in about two-thirds of Minnesota. In the early 1970s, CPA and UPA determined that they needed more sources of electricity to meet the growing demands of their members. CPA and UPA decided to buy power generated by a Coal Creek Station to be built near Underwood, North Dakota, next to a coal mine. The electricity would be transmitted by a high-voltage line that crossed Minnesota from Traverse County to Wright County. From Wright County, the power would be transmitted to local cooperatives.

image of anti-powerline political button
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Anti-power-line button made by Continental Press Inc. of St. Cloud, ca. 1975–1987.
CPA and UPA planned a 400-kilovolt (kV) direct-current line more than 400 miles long, about 170 miles of which would be in Minnesota. The line would be supported by towers about 180 feet high with about four towers per mile. Because of the rural nature of the route, the power line would inevitably affect farmland. In some places, the line would go along property boundaries, but in others, the line would cut diagonally across fields under cultivation.

Organized opposition to the project began in Pope and Grant Counties. In the summer and fall of 1974, residents appeared at meetings of county planning commissions and boards that were considering the requests of CPA and UPA for permits to build the power line. In the face of citizen opposition to the power line, the counties denied or deferred the permit requests. Farmers who spoke at these meetings objected to being forced to allow what they considered to be large, ugly structures to mar the land they had farmed for many years. More concretely, they complained that the power line’s planners overstated the need for electricity, the towers would interfere with irrigation systems, and the wires would make aerial spraying dangerous. Some opponents of the line also expressed fears that such a high voltage could have adverse health effects on livestock and humans. For example, it was argued, the line could create excessive ozone or ion levels as well as a risk of shock to people working under the line.

After several counties began considering the requests for construction permits, the Minnesota Environmental Quality Council (MEQC) assumed jurisdiction of the power-line approval process pursuant to a then-new Minnesota Power Plan Siting Act, taking the matter out of the hands of local authorities. After holding public hearings, the MEQC rejected the allegations of harmful health effects and ruled that construction of the power line could proceed. This decision and a related decision of the Minnesota Energy Agency were upheld by a three-judge panel and the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The small sheriffs’ departments of several affected counties said they were unable to control the situation and requested state help. In January 1978, Governor Rudy Perpich ordered that 175 state troopers be made available to control protests in Pope County. Arrests and violent confrontations ensued, including an incident in which protesters sprayed ammonium fertilizer on state troopers.

Once the towers and lines were installed, they became targets of vandalism. At least 9,500 insulators were shot out. Vandals found that they could cause towers to fall to the ground by cutting tower legs. From August 1978 through August 1983, sixteen towers were toppled.

The power line began commercial operation on August 1, 1979. Opposition activities declined but did not immediately end. Litigation about the power line continued into the 1980s.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/10/2020 - 03:01 pm.

    Guess the answer is obvious, we want the benefits, but NIMBY (not much different than most any old folks. Can farmers, farm W/O transmissible electricity today, doesn’t appear to be any rush for them to go green.

  2. Submitted by George Baboila on 02/10/2020 - 03:46 pm.

    This story isn’t complete without mentioning Larry Long and his song, “Pope County Blues.” It chronicles the battle to stop the powerline by activists.

  3. Submitted by Joe Musich on 02/10/2020 - 08:40 pm.

    In many ways the struggle with the forces of corporations to being response to citizen concerns goes on still today with oil pipelines, ethanol transportation, and sulfide mining. It has always seemed as if corporations can bend government to prescribe to their wishes. The broad citizenry needs to be better informed. This writing barely scratches the surface of this event that being said the report is a beginning. So many of the efforts by proactive citizens have been forgotten. It is “funny” how history gets reported. Here is another source…

  4. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 02/10/2020 - 10:38 pm.


    “Some opponents of the line also expressed fears that such a high voltage could have adverse health effects on livestock and humans. For example, it was argued, the line could create excessive ozone or ion levels as well as a risk of shock to people working under the line”

    What is the verdict 40 years later?

    Any truth to the stated fears?

    • Submitted by Paul Stolen and Stolen on 02/26/2020 - 10:18 am.

      I worked for the MN Power Plant Siting Advisory Committee as an intern when they werer tasked with fixing the rules on energy facilities after the controversy. This was in about 1977-78. Later, when I worked for the State of Montana, I was the lead person on getting a study done on the biological affects of electromagnetic fields from HVT Lines. The power industry tried to stop the study–long story there about the intrigue that happened. But suffice to say, the MT governor backed us. The study then made news across the USA. Montana then passed a setback standard whereby such lines must be set back from houses. This was based on the scientific evidence at the time which was somewhat inconclusive but also highly concerning. I haven’t followed the evidence in recent years. However, it has been proven that such power lines adjacent to dairy operations in some cases leads to reduced milk production.

  5. Submitted by Dan Nordley on 02/11/2020 - 11:48 am.

    Certainly an interesting time. The new wave of food co-op folk were actively protesting the old wave co-op establishment. I remember a sleep-in at the capitol in 1977.

    Also, an early Paul Wellstone cause:

    The First Battle of America’s Energy War
    2003 • Authors: Paul Wellstone and Barry M. Casper
    Foreword by Senator Tom Harkin

    Now electric co-ops have a chance to revisit their “turn the lights on” legacy in rural America and help bridge the digital (and perhaps other) divide.

    Thanks for the article!

  6. Submitted by Tom Goldstein on 02/11/2020 - 11:48 am.

    Kept waiting for the mention of the late Paul Wellstone’s significant involvement with this issue on behalf of Minnesota farmers. Does the article’s author even know about the book Powerline, cited by Joe Musich above, that was reprinted by the University of Minnesota Press? Not sure the point of simply scratching the surface of an incredibly powerful time of protest in Minnesota–and the many “regular” folks who got involved–other than to promote the equally thin summary offered by MNopedia, If the point is just to prick people’s interest, a site to the Wellstone & Casper book would have done more justice to the issue.

  7. Submitted by Bob Johnson on 02/11/2020 - 02:17 pm.

    As a Grant Co. resident, I was a part of this activity.
    I was not a powerline supporter and found it gratifying to see farmers out protesting with us and asking elected officials where they stood on the issue.
    I was not a part of any violence and was disturbed some thought that appropriate.
    Today as I drive under those same lines, I often reflect on the benefits vs the ‘corporate control’ factors.
    Then, when I drive on I-94 and see today’s powerlines, I marvel at how small the 1970 lines actually are.

    I find some small satisfaction upon seeing the wind turbines, which don’t rely on coal, oil or gas to produce energy. Some may view them as eyesores, yet I view them as our last chance for clean energy.

    Ironically, even wind turbines are a corporate product. Energy companies denied, berated and opposed wind and solar until they could get legislation passed allowing complete control over the resource. They couldn’t ‘own’ the wind or the sun, so they turned to the politicians they owned.

    At this moment, Fargo is looking at allowing wind turbines in that city to be legal for homeowners. Expect cadres of lawyers, corporate interests and energy spokespeople to go to great lengths to explain to Fargo residents why this is a terrible idea while the energy companies continue to buy ads promoting green energy and how they’re ‘making a difference’ in our lives.

  8. Submitted by scott cramer on 02/12/2020 - 07:27 am.

    Please add much more to this story. You have left out many important details. There were hundreds of arrests, probably cost Gov Perpich reelection in 78, trials refusing to convict protestors, that if you held an 8 foot fluorescent light up under the line it would glow,which meant a great concern about health and safety. Alice Tripp getting 20%of the vote statewide in governors primary etc. why this was a key experience in launching Paul Wellstones towards office etc.

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