Stray voltage debate charging up again

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Several farmers in southern Minnesota have filed lawsuits against electrical utilities over “stray voltage,” which they claim is causing illness in their dairy herds. Xcel Energy, which is named in three lawsuits, is arguing in at least one case that bad farming could be the cause of the illness.

Stray voltage is associated with aging and overloaded power lines. It occurs when infrastructure devices, like junction boxes, are unintentionally charged or excess current is forced to divert into the ground. Whether these electrical discharges have adverse effects on dairy operations has long been a highly contested debate.

In 1996 the Minnesota Public Utility Commission conducted a $4 million study into stray voltage in which a group of experts reported it had “not found credible scientific evidence to verify the specific claim that currents in the earth or associated electrical parameters such as voltages, magnetic fields and electric fields are causes of poor health and milk production in dairy herds.” However, farmers have made recent legal gains in their efforts to seek compensation. In 2004 the Idaho Supreme Court denied an appeal of a $17 million judgment against a utility, and in December the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld a damage award to two dairy farmers and upheld a six-year time limit for farmers to take action.

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