- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004

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,” Mr. Randall recalled. Mr. Randall, 76, has been farming all his life in Robinson, a central North Dakota town of about 70 people — just like his father and grandfather did. He was the first in the family to farm with electricity in 1949. And he may be one of the few left in the area.

“There aren’t too many farms around here to light up anymore,” Mr. Randall said. “It’s gone from dark to light to dark.”

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

About 20 percent 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 Association 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 pose fire dangers. When no one is around to alert companies about a power outage owing 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, Mr. Spencer said, and about $2,500 a mile to tear them down. A study nearly 10 years ago found it would cost about $130 million to remove all unused power lines, money the co-ops generally don’t have.

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

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 percent of rural residents had electricity, compared with 90 percent for urban dwellers.

The REA required two customers per mile before it would loan co-ops money to build a power line in a region. “That was the density needed to make it economically feasible,” Mr. 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 declining ever since.

Today, the state has about 30,000 farms.

Mr. 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, though 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 also could run water to their pastures, thanks to electric pumps. And there were the much-welcomed comforts of lights, radios and water heaters.

Mr. Randall said rural electrification probably benefited big cities as much as it did rural areas, because farmers would travel to the city 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 some 700 services — including farms, pumps and other accounts — that are idle. Power was cut to some, he said, because for years, no one paid to keep them on.

Mike Schaefbauer said restoring the power to an old farmstead he owns 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. Mr. Spencer said one customer pays for six miles of line that leads to a duck-hunting cabin.

“If someone is paying the bill, we keep the line hot,” Mr. Frankland said.

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

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

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