Minnesota’s first major power line project in a generation is moving forward, and 630 miles of high-voltage wires are expected to be strung across the countryside by 2015. What the final project will look like and the exact route of its three lines, however, is still far from decided.
Some of that will depend on what the public deems important.
Next week, state commerce officials will begin a series of 10 public meetings across the state to discuss the $1.6 billion project. The meetings will be partly a presentation of plans, but also a chance for the public to indicate what the state should consider when studying the project’s environmental effects.
“We really haven’t done anything of this magnitude since the late 1960s and early 1970s,” said Jim Alders, manager of regulatory projects for Xcel Energy.
The project has even split environmental leaders, who are caught between the desire to encourage more wind farm development in remote areas, and concerns about how the new lines would affect hundreds of landowners and millions of ratepayers.
During the past few months, the utilities have held more than two dozen public meetings and filed the first set of applications with state regulators.
The utilities and cooperatives need to prove that the high-voltage lines are needed in order to receive permits to construct them. Terry Grove, director of regional transmission development for Great River Energy, said that the projects are driven by three factors: the need to provide more reliable power for Rochester, St. Cloud, Fargo and other fast-growing cities; the desire to strengthen the overall electric system in surrounding rural areas, and the state requirement for utilities to generate 25 percent of their electricity from renewable sources – mainly wind power – by 2025.
Grove said Minnesota needs 4,000 to 6,000 additional megawatts of power by 2020, an increase of 22 to 33 percent, depending largely upon economic and population growth.
The proposals originated from a joint industry initiative called CapX 2020 that began discussions in 2004. They include a 230-mile high-voltage line between Brookings, South Dakota and the southeast Twin Cities; a 250-mile line from Fargo to Monticello, and a 150-mile line linking the southeast Twin Cities with Rochester and LaCrosse, Wis.
An additional 68-mile line between Bemidji and Grand Rapids is part of a separate proceeding, but would also be built within the next few years.
Carol Overland, an attorney in Red Wing who specializes in electric energy issues, does not accept that so many long-distance power lines are needed. Power can be provided by wind farms located closer to where the electricity is consumed, she said, such as those being built in southeastern Minnesota.
Overland said the high-voltage lines are being promoted falsely as a way to increase wind development in southwestern Minnesota and the Dakotas. “They will promote coal, not wind,” she said, claiming that several Western utilities would build coal-fired plants if they had more power lines to transmit the electricity east to markets in the Twin Cities and Chicago.
However Bill Grant, executive director of the Midwest office of the Izaak Walton League, a conservation group, said power lines are necessary if the state wants developers to build more wind farms to meet a growing demand for electricity in the Twin Cities and elsewhere.
“We’ve come to the conclusion that a certain amount of new transmission line is going to be required whether we like it or not,” Grant said. “We knew that this tradeoff was coming, and the important thing is to get it done right.”
Grant said that some electricity from coal-fired plants will likely be sent over the new power lines, but that most of it can be generated by wind farms. Wind has an advantage, he said, because turbines and towers can be installed and be producing power in 12 to 18 months, while new coal plants typically take 8 to 10 years to permit, build and test.
The lines would be constructed between 2010 and 2015, utility officials said. The schedule includes additional permit and routing applications to Wisconsin, Minnesota authorities and their counterparts in the Dakotas and numerous public meetings in 2008, completion of environmental studies in 2009, and easement negotiations with affected landowners from 2009 to 2012. Property owners receive compensation if lines are routed across their property.
Lisa Daniels, executive director of Windustry, a nonprofit group that helps small communities develop wind projects, said that transmission lines are like roads that farmers use to take their commodities to market. Her Minneapolis-based organization and others will be looking closely at the CapX projects, Daniels said, to be sure that they are built in the right places and at the right sizes to benefit smaller-scale wind development. The stakes are high for all consumers, she said, not just those who may have power lines built across their property. “For most of our lives, the biggest decision about electricity has been whether to turn the lights on or off,” she said. “Now we’re having to make bigger decisions about what our energy system looks like.”
By Tom Meersman
9 December 2007