A proposal to build new high-voltage transmission lines across Minnesota has the backing of some unlikely supporters.
Several environmental groups say they are in favor of the project if it helps provide a means of transporting wind power and other renewable energy.
“We do have very aggressive renewable energy goals in Minnesota,” said Beth Soholt, director of Wind on the Wires. “And we do believe that without additional transmission investment, we’re not going to be able to achieve those goals.”
However, not all environmental groups agree, and some will demand an alternative at public hearings scheduled this week on the project.
Several utilities, including Xcel Energy and Great River Energy, are proposing to build three new lines, including one from Monticello to Fargo, N.D., that would cut through the St. Cloud area.
The utilities say the project, dubbed CapX 2020, is needed because of a growing demand for electricity in Minnesota.
The project requires a certificate of need from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, which has scheduled public hearings this week on the project. A specific route for the line has not yet been determined.
Other groups that have said they back CapX 2020 include the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Fresh Energy and the Izaak Walton League of America.
The groups say Minnesota needs more transmission lines to meet a state law requiring a quarter of the state’s electricity come from wind and other clean sources by 2025.
“If we’re serious about climate change, about investing in renewables and about changing the way that we do business as energy consumers, by definition we have to make some changes,” said Mary Marrow, attorney for the MCEA. “Providing transmission … for renewables is a key piece of that and without that, we’re never going to get there.”
Wind, biofuels and other renewable sources often are generated in sparsely populated areas, and the energy “needs to be moved to where it can be used,” Soholt said.
The groups will ask the PUC to put conditions on the certificate of need that make sure some of the line’s new capacity is set aside for renewable energy, she said.
In the past, transmission lines have drawn opposition from landowners and environmentalists concerned about stray voltage, unsightly towers and other impacts. In the 1970s, violent protests erupted over a line in western and Central Minnesota.
This project is different, Soholt said, because representatives from the utilities have been talking with communities along the route and seeking their input on environmentally sensitive areas such as the Avon Hills area near St. John’s University.
“I think in some areas it’s not going to be possible to avoid … sensitive areas totally with trying to site 600 miles of new transmission line,” she said. “But they can do everything in their power to mitigate or offset the impacts.”
However, some grassroots conservation organizations question the need for large new transmission lines and say they’re concerned they will be used to transmit electricity from “dirty” energy sources such as coal plants.
“There is no guarantee at all that the transmission will be used for wind,” said Paula Maccabee, attorney for the Citizens Energy Task Force. That group, along with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and the North American Water Office, have said they believe that future investments in renewable energy and energy conservation will require fewer large power lines.
“We want to make sure that a good part of our energy future is community-based energy development,” Maccabee said.
Marrow said all the groups on both sides of the issue have the same goal.
“Ultimately, we probably all agree that we want to have wind on the lines,” she said. “I think there may be different interpretations about the best way to make that happen.”
By Kirsti Marohn
16 June 2008
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