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Power transmission grid in line for major overhaul

Minnesota utilities say upgrades are needed to get energy to their customers

Oct 18, 2008 - H.J. Cummins -Star Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Minneapolis - Every morning, when Minnesotans hit the brew button on their coffee makers, tune their radios to the news and turn down their thermostats, they are using bits of electricity that reach them through a giant circulation system of energy: the state's power grid.

Now, Minnesota utilities are saying the backbone of that grid is faltering -- the big transmission lines, 230 kilovolts and higher, that carry energy for the long distances across the state. It's time to build more, or replace stretches of smaller lines with the big ones.

Meanwhile, the state has mandated utilities get 25 percent of their power from renewable energy by 2025. That's going to take more lines in more places, too, especially through the wind-rich, southwest corner of Minnesota. And much of the expansion is centered around smaller cities that have had significant population growth such as Rochester and Winona.

For all those reasons, utilities, state regulators and clean-energy advocates have turned their focus to transmission as the next, big challenge to meeting the state's electric energy needs.

It has brought the biggest expansion proposal in 25 years before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. Called CapX 2020, it's a partnership of the state's 11 biggest utilities, which collectively own more than 80 percent of the state's electricity grid. They plan to report by year's end the total number of new lines they expect to need over the next 15 years. But so far, they have asked the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission for permission to build 700 miles of the big lines, mostly through central Minnesota.

Another good-sized proposal will be in the news this week. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission expects to finally get a report that could determine its long-awaited decision whether to let owners of a proposed coal plant in South Dakota, Big Stone II, build power lines into Minnesota.

Environmental groups have issues with some of the big transmission proposals. Some even challenge the basic premise of more need, especially because of state conservation targets beginning in 2010 that make utilities responsible for cutting their customers' consumption by 1.5 percent annually.

While all this percolates through the state, there is a call to think more regionally. Because wind and power grids don't stop at state borders, five Upper Midwest states -- Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and North and South Dakota -- have formed the Upper Midwest Transmission Development Initiative. Intended to work out design and cost-sharing decisions among the states, state representatives are expected to gather for their first meeting in November.

CapX 2020

This is the mother of grid proposals: all the capital expansion goals of the state's big utilities through 2020 -- thus the name, CapX 2020. The 11 utilities -- including Xcel Energy, Great River Energy and Otter Tail Power Co. -- expect to need 4,000 to 6,000 more megawatts in grid capacity by then. (One megawatt powers about 800 homes.) They project that need because -- despite the state's conservation mandate -- their customer demand is going up 3 to 5 percent a year, said Tim Carlsgaard, spokesman for CapX 2020. Among the forces at work, the utilities cite: The average Midwest home is 40 percent larger than 30 years ago; also, the number of Minnesota homes with air conditioning has doubled in that time. As the first step, the partner utilities are asking to build 700 miles of new lines in four stretches. They would add capacity between some major cities, Fargo to southeast of St. Cloud, for example, and between Bemidji and Grand Rapids. One line, from Brookings, S.D., to southeast of the Twin Cities, is expected to most help the utilities with their renewable energy mandate.


Utilities will bring specific route proposals for each line, one by one over next year, before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. Each application starts a 12-month clock for public comment and regulators' review of that route. If approved, the utilities plan to start construction with the St. Cloud-to-Monticello piece, and hope to have all the lines up and running sometime between 2012 and 2015.

The number of landowners affected will depend on which routes the commission approves, but the utilities expect fewer than 4,500 statewide. Tall poles would carry the new lines, with that power expected to meet the various utilities' needs for 20 to 50 years out. The utilities are now considering a variation on that: Build the poles about 25 feet taller -- up to about 150 feet on average -- to make room for a second line, that could be strong enough to later double the capacity. That variation would raise the cost from the original $1.4 billion to $1.7 billion estimate to closer to $2 billion, Carlsgaard said.

The proposal already has organized opposition. The Citizens Energy Task Force has argued before state regulators that the utilities have largely failed to prove they need the added capacity. The group, with about 200 members, has been most vocal in its protests against the Southeast Minnesota line. They say that spanning the line across the river to Wisconsin would be an ugly intrusion, and they maintain that new local energy generation -- including wind -- would cover any new customer demand in that area, said Paula Maccabee, the group's attorney.

Four environmental groups, including the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, support the proposal, with one condition, said the group's attorney, Beth Goodpaster. They want 100 percent of the addition capacity to be committed to wind energy. That might sound like a lot, but those first 700 miles would get the state only a small fraction of the way toward the renewable energy requirement, Goodpaster said.

Carlsgaard said the utilities' intent is to use a lot of the new capacity for wind, but that a federal "open access" law won't allow them to give preference to one form of energy.

Big Stone II

The controversy around this proposal has to do not with its power lines so much as the reason to build them: a proposed $1.6 billion coal generating plant, because coal is a big source of greenhouse gases. Five Minnesota utilities, led by Otter Tail Power Co., want regulators' permission to build $240 million worth of new lines to carry about half the plant's production to Minnesota customers, aiming for a 2014 finish. They promise new measures to reduce pollution; they also say they need the power to meet customer demand.

An environmental carrot: They're proposing lines big enough to help carry wind energy from that region. Environmental groups say coal is still dirty energy whose time has passed, and piggybacking some wind energy on the lines doesn't fix that.

Minnesota Power

In a novel grid project, this Duluth-based electric company proposes to switch a 465-mile stretch of power line now carrying all coal-generated electricity to all wind. The line runs nearly straight across Minnesota from south of Fargo to Duluth. The plan is to buy the line next year from the Square Butte Electric Cooperative in Grand Forks, N.D., and then build the utility's own 500- to 700-megawatt wind farm on 47,000 acres of land near Center, N.D., that Minnesota Power has under option. The gradual conversion to all wind is expected to take until about 2024, spokesperson Amy Rutledge said. The project will go a long way toward meeting Minnesota Power's 25-percent renewable energy requirement. The purchase price on the line is about $80 million; the cost of the wind farm has not been announced. The whole project is pending approvals from Minnesota and North Dakota energy regulators.

H.J. Cummins --612-673-4671

Updated: 2016/06/30

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