academic environmental studies   macalester college
Environmental Studies

CU Powerline & Activism



Organization Begins

Citizen Action

Response & Alternatives

Why History Matters

Links & Resources


  CU Powerline and Activism in Western Minnesota

   Rebekah Holmes, '10


“They claim that the people have a right to power,

But only the electric kind.
We’re supposed to be quiet while they build their towers,
Cross the land that’s yours and mine.”
                      -from Minnesota Line by Nancy Abrams


     Paul Wellstone in the book Powerline: The First Battle of America’s Energy War, wrote, “To most Americans, the high voltage power-lines that crisscross our countryside are just a fact of life- links in an energy network whose existence is essential to our modern way of living. To many Minnesota farmers, however, one power-line has become a powerful symbol – a symbol of America’s willingness to sacrifice its rural citizens to feed a gluttonous hunger for energy.” In 1973, two cooperative utilities, Cooperative Power Association (CPA) of Edina, Minnesota and United Power Association (UPA) of Elk River, Minnesota announced plans to build a large electricity generating plant, Coal Creek Generating Station, on the site of the Falkirk lignite mine near Bismarck, North Dakota and transport the energy to Minnesota by high-voltage transmission lines. In 1974, the CU project was underway, but one thing was missing from the decision-making process: the voices of the co-op members themselves and other affected citizens. [1]

     Excited by the passionate activism surrounding the civil rights movement and the emerging feminist and environmental movements, citizen activism towards the CU Project arose swiftly.  Years of meetings, hearings, protests and sabotage gave farmers of Western Minnesota an outlet for their opposition.  Local farmers from Grand, Pope, and Stearns Counties, most living along the proposed route, formed Towers Out of Pope County Association (TOOPA) and Counties United for a Rural Environment (CURE) as well as other groups to organize the effort against the CU Project.  Questions were asked about health and safety problems: electric shock, ozone, and biological effects including long-term exposure to low-level electric and magnetic fields as well as questions like:

•    “Is it needed?”
•    “Is this technically feasible?”
•    “Will it be profitable?”
•    “What will it do to our environment?”
•    “Does it fit our long-range energy plans?”  
•    “Who sacrifices, who benefits, and who decides?”

     The building of the CU Project was not only localized problem about farmers’ health, rights, and livelihoods, but it was a broader question about how Minnesota as a whole would fuel and live our future.  Using community organizations, testimonies in hearings and voices in songs and theater as well as large-scale (and even small-scale) protests with creative tactics, the farmers made their message very clear and left a lasting impact on the state of Minnesota.  Energy battles are still being fought daily in Minnesota and the government and corporate win on the CU Project greatly influenced the way energy is laid out in Minnesota today. By taking a glimpse back into this little-known and extremely important controversy we will see how citizens can get involved in current local and national energy controversies like the Big Stone II Plant near Milbank, South Dakota.

[1] Wellstone, Paul, and Barry M. Casper. Powerline: The First Battle of America's Energy War. Mineapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003

Figure 1: A line of power-lines stretches  into the distance in a field.


Figure 2: Transmission corridors proposed for CPA-UPA high voltage transmission line. [1]

Figure 3: Power-lines built across open land.

Last updated:  5/6/2008


Macalester College 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55105  USA  651-696-6000
Comments and questions to