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Plans for a massive electrical upgrade hit the ground  

Electrical consumption in Minnesota continues to grow at a clip greater than 2 percent a year, a rate seen in only a few other areas of the country, California among them.

Utilities in Minnesota have not made a major investment in the transmission system that delivers the power long distances for more than 25 years.

Is Minnesota about to hit the wall?

The state is moving closer to the capacity of the transmission system, according to Randy Fordice, communications coordinator with Great River Energy. That’s why Great River Energy, Xcel Energy and nine other utilities are seeking approval to invest more than $1.3 billion and build more than 600 miles of new line and make other upgrades to the grid.

That’s just the start, or what is known as the Group I projects of CapX 2020. Capacity Expansion by Year 2020 is a proposal that calls for eventually investing more than $3.5 billion in three project groups to upgrade the transmission grid for Minnesota and portions of eastern South Dakota and western Wisconsin.

Open-house style meetings were held Wednesday in Granite Falls and Thursday in Olivia to discuss the Group 1 projects. This first phase calls for building three 345-kilovolt lines, and one 230-kilovolt line.

One of the 345-kilovolt lines will run 230 miles from Brookings, S.D., to the southeastern Twin Cities. It would include development of a 345-kilovolt connection from Marshall to a substation to be built west of Granite Falls in Hazel Run Township, and connected to the Minnesota Valley substation in Granite Falls via a 230-kilovolt line.

The high-voltage line between Brookings and the Twin Cities will likely run on a direct path that will take it through Franklin in Renville County. Regulations require that an alternative route also be considered. That alternative route would run roughly parallel to U.S. Highway 212 in the northern half of Renville County.

Work is not far enough along to know the specific routes for either the preferred or alternative corridors, according to Fordice. Consequently, thousands of landowners along these and other corridors in the state where upgrades have been proposed have been sent letters advising them of the plans, and of the meetings.

Nonetheless, the two local hearings attracted only small numbers of interested citizens.

The 11 utilities proposing the project recently filed for a certificate of need and kicked off an 18-month permitting process. There will be open house meetings in the winter and spring allowing for comment on the possible power line routes.

A Public Utilities Commission decision on the permit is not expected until the winter of 2009-2010.

The project is being proposed due to the steady growth in electrical demand. Representatives of the utilities were careful to avoid any statements that would suggest that the transmission system is being placed at risk of the kind of cascade that left 10 million consumers without power in the Northeast U.S. and parts of Canada in August 2003.

But system engineers, including Jared Alholinna, transmission planning engineer with Great River Energy, noted that there have been incidents of “load pockets’’ where the system has been deficient. Engineers have been able to reconfigure the system to avoid overstressing it, said Kevin Lennon, an engineer with Great River Energy.

Fordice said the utilities have been making smaller upgrades and taking a variety of measures to route electricity as demand grows, but more capacity is needed. Electrical consumption is projected to grow by 4,000 to 6,000 megawatts by 2020. That’s roughly the equivalent of adding 70 to 100 Willmar-sized communities to the system.

There is also growing interest – and a state mandate – to add renewable energy from wind farms to the transmission system. The utilities need to make room for 700 megawatts of expected wind power from southwestern Minnesota, according to Fordice.

Fordice said the biggest issue is overall system reliability. While it’s true that the greatest electrical load is from the Twin Cities area, rural areas are seeing strong electrical growth too.

Rural electric cooperatives are actually seeing some of the steadiest growth in electrical demand in the state. Homes and farms are using more power, and other development is occurring.

Dan Kline, Xcel Energy, said that ethanol plants have added significantly to the electrical demand. Speaking about the west central zone of the transmission grid – which includes the Willmar area, he pointed out that there has been a lot of “redesign’’ to allow the system to accommodate the growth in demand.

He also emphasized that the transmission infrastructure is aging. In this zone, Kline said there are many portions of the system that are 35 to 50 years old, and some parts of the system built in the 1930s are still in use.

By Tom Cherveny

West Central Tribune

14 September 2007

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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