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Wind project threatens coal country

A Minnesota utility said it’s planning its own mega wind farm in Oliver County, meaning Oliver and Morton counties could some day be home to as many as 1,000 new wind turbines across the hilltops.

At the same time the turbines are capturing mile after mile of wind, they could cover up substantial coal reserves along that southern stretch of Coal Country.

North American Coal Corp. plans to file a new mine permit this fall for a 5,000-acre Otter Creek Mine near Hannover in Oliver County and its landman Jim Melchior said he doesn’t yet know whether the planned mine and wind development would overlap.

“We’re concerned that the (wind) siting doesn’t not fall on top of coal reserves,” Melchior said. “You bet we would”object, he said.

Public Service Commissioner Kevin Cramer said it’s time to get all the players to together and talk about it.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the coal will be mined,”Cramer said. “We have one energy developer that deals with the surface and one that deals with the minerals underneath. We need a timeout to talk about the issue.”

It is likely that coal mining could take precedence because coal minerals were probably severed from surface ownership long before the more recent wind leases were offered.

Cramer said he’ll start the discussion at today’s regular PSC meeting.

The commissioners’ meeting with Minnesota Power Tuesday brought the scale of the issue into sharper focus.

The PSC already has a letter of intent from Florida Power and Light for a world’s-largest scale wind farm with 667 turbines on 250 square miles in Oliver and Morton counties.

The commission had apparently assumed – as did others – that Minnesota Power would buy some of those 1,000 megawatts to fill a transmission line that runs out to northeastern Minnesota.

Margaret Hodnik, vice president of regulation and legislative affairs for MInnesota Power, said her company heard of FPL’s mega scale plan when everybody else did, even though Minnesota Power is buying all the output from a smaller wind project FPL developed in Oliver County last year.

“We are developing our own project,” Hodnik said.

Commissioner Susan Wefald expressed what others were feeling.

“We didn’t know this until now,”Wefald said.

Minnesota Power is a corporate sister to the BNI Coal mine at Center -both are part of Allete Co. -and its chief executive officer, Don Shippar, said earlier it would look at developing wind energy on its reclaimed land, where the coal already has been removed.

BNI has about 5,000 acres of seeded, reclaimed coal mine, said PSC’s head of reclamation, Jim Deutsch.

Hodnik said Minnesota Power wants to use North Dakota wind to meet a MInnesota mandate that 25 percent of energy must come from renewable sources by 2025. Minnesota also has a policy against adding more coal-fired energy until carbon dioxide can be sequestered.

Cramer said the proposed FPL project -one of the biggest anywhere in the world right now -would test North Dakota’s tolerance for wind farms. Adding MInnesota Power’s in the same county would test it even more.

“It’s one thing to champion wind. It’s another thing to imagine looking at (750) of them on our beautiful landscape,”Cramer said.

By Lauren Donovan

Bismarck Tribune

16 July 2008