The last time new high-voltage electrical lines were strung across Minnesota, protesters slathered state troopers with ammonia fertilizer, covered themselves with pig manure, armed themselves with baseball bats and lined up to be arrested.
In 1978, angry residents near Lowry and Sauk Centre went so far as to topple 15 transmission towers. The power lines were raised, despite the objections from naysayers, including a then-obscure Carleton College professor named Paul Wellstone.
Xcel Energy Inc. and 10 other utility companies are setting the stage this week for what they hope will be a milder public reaction to the first major power transmission project in Minnesota in more than 25 years.
The consortium of utilities is mailing 73,000 letters to landowners that outline a proposal to crisscross Minnesota with about 650 miles of new high-voltage transmission lines. The $1.3 billion to $1.6 billion project, set to be completed in 2014, is the first of a number of transmission expansions that will cost billions more in the years ahead. The state will hold hearings to vet questions and objections.
George Crocker, one of the opponents of the 1970s transmission project and a critic of the latest proposal, said he expects a big public turnout – in formal forums, not in the streets.
“Instead of the tension being out in the field, the tension will be in the hearing room, in putting the facts on the table,” said Crocker, executive director of the North American Water Office, an environmental group based in Lake Elmo. “I think it’s a certainty that there won’t be the response that we had in 1978,” he said, adding, “We’ll see if the system is able to be fair.”
Crocker said an alternative plan – stringing lower-voltage lines short distances from wind turbines scattered across the state – would be cheaper and simpler to implement, a premise Xcel officials dispute.
The scope of the proposed transmission upgrade is unprecedented, said Laura McCarten, an Xcel executive who is co-executive director of the project, called CapX 2020.
“To the magnitude we’re working on these projects, it’s never happened before,” she said.
Since 1980, consumer demand for electricity in the state has doubled. In a primer filed on www.capx2020.com, the utilities note that in 2006, the average home had 26 electronic devices, from high-definition TVs and DVD players to digital cameras and cordless phones. In 1975, a typical home had two or fewer.
The proposed transmission lines will add capacity to carry 4,000 to 6,000 megawatts, or the equivalent of enough energy to power 4 million to 6 million homes. Peak demand now is about 20,000 megawatts.
The utilities also argue that the drive for alternative sources of energy – chiefly wind turbines – requires more transmission lines to move electricity from the breezy bluffs of rural southwest Minnesota to customers in urban areas.
The companies don’t expect to cross the property of all 73,000 landowners receiving notice.
“We’re designing this to be the most open process ever for a transmission project,” McCarten said.
Any owner of land within a dozen miles of potential routes was notified, even though the exact transmission paths won’t be set for months. The utilities have held talks with public officials in more than 100 communities, in an attempt to answer questions and allay fears.
In the 1970s, many opponents of transmission expansion were stirred by thoughts that electrical “leakage” from high power lines hurt people or animals – a concern answered, if not put to rest, by a number of scientific studies that found no link between the lines and illness.
Property rights also propelled opponents, who were worried that the utilities could get government to seize land for transmission lines.
But the utilities note that along a 150-mile transmission line expansion underway in southwest Minnesota, just eight of 390 parcels in the path of the lines are in condemnation proceedings. “We expect to settle six,” Xcel spokeswoman Mary Sandok said. Landowners usually receive a one-time payment in compensation for transmission line construction. After the lines are up, livestock and farm equipment simply navigate around the towers, which are 120 to 150 feet high and spaced 600 to 1,000 feet apart.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will hold hearings over the next couple of years to decide if the CapX2020 transmission lines are needed, and the commission must approve the proposed routes. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Commerce will seek public comment and prepare an environmental report.
By Mike Meyers
23 July 2007
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