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Tomorrow's power grid being planned today

Dec 23, 2009 - Dick Hagen - McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Be it new livestock facilities, wind turbines or electric transmission lines, the NIMBY syndrome ("not in my backyard") continues to surface from land owners, home owners and project detractors who aren't always excited about new economic development projects. An ever-increasing appetite for energy, however, suggests changing attitudes are necessary for a growing segment of Minnesotans, regardless of what area of the state they live.

A prime example is the largest transmission expansion project ever proposed in the United States. Known as CapX2020, this effort involves four projects totaling about 700 miles of new and upgraded power lines in Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota and Wisconsin.

"All four projects are moving forward in the regulatory process. By next January (2010), we will have Minnesota route permits submitted with the same process also under way in the three other states. So between 2011 and 2015 we hope to have 'in service' lines in place in all four states," said Tim Carlsgaard, Communications and Public Affairs manager for CapX2020, Xcel Energy Co.

Interviewed at the recent Minnesota Farm Bureau annual meeting, Carlsgaard indicated this massive project was initially projected at a cost of about $1.7 billion.

"But at the urging of the state and various wind development projects, we have proposed to double-circuit the project meaning double the transmission capacity on this new power grid on three of the four projects, which adds $200 million additional costs," said Carlsgaard, who noted that increasing the capacity now rather than coming back later seemed a wiser option. The Midwest power grid involves 15 states and the Canadian province of Manitoba, so improvements generated by the CapX2020 project will improve the efficiency of this entire grid.

Reliable service

Carlsgaard praised the various Minnesota utilities that have now been in business more than 100 years and continue to deliver dependable service virtually without a hitch, whereas "rolling brown outs" are a reality of some older systems in parts of eastern seaboard states. He told of a power line originating in South Dakota and running parallel to Highway 212 into Shakopee that has been operating for over 60 years.

"It's a good example of an efficient and remarkably dependable system," he said. "It's a 230-kilovolt line today but potentially can be upgraded with a 345 KV line utilizing single pole structures which would have less impact on the land than the existing four-pole/lattice framework structures."

With ever more wind projects being proposed for rural Minnesota, the million-dollar question is what is the most expedient way to transfer that wind energy into the metropolitan areas where it is needed. "Striking the right balance with the least amount of impact on land owners is the challenge," Carlsgaard said.

Working with landowners

He acknowledged that Xcel strives to properly work with landowners and rural communities where these new transmission routes are proposed. Once the Public Utilities Commission accepts the proposed new routes from point A to point B, then Xcel starts talking with land owners along that route including getting current appraisals on land values. Under Minnesota law, once agreements are reached with affected land owners, a one-time easement is agreed to which includes payments for two to three years of potential crop damages incurred by the equipment utilized in the process of building the new line.

Also by state statute, the PUC authority exceeds that of the county, the township and the landowners once the route determination has been finalized. However before construction on a project starts, Xcel officials do meet with all parties of the project location including township officers, community officials and, of course, individual landowners. "And that even involves replacing damaged drain tile, fencing, township roads, community roads and sewer lines, plus MnDOT where state roads/bridges get involved," Carlsgaard said. Planning even involves mitigation plans with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture outlining how Xcel will work with farmers should there be legal issues.

Going nuclear

If and when Minnesota lifts its current ban on additional nuclear-powered electricity, CapX2020 will likely be impacted, but not in a definable manner at this stage. Carlsgaard said Xcel's two nuclear-powered plants in Minnesota -- at Monticello and Prairie Island -- have a current proposal to increase their output by 10 percent and getting an extension on their current permits for another 20 to 30 years.

This decision is expected to be acted upon during the upcoming 2010 session of the Minnesota State Legislature. Also likely to be on the agenda is a lifting of the current state-imposed ban on additional nuclear power. Wisconsin also bans expansion of nuclear power at this stage.

About 20 percent of Xcel's energy is currently generated from its two nuclear facilities. Even though it is identified as the cleanest source of energy, questions persist as to storage of spent fuel rods. Carlsgaard indicated none of Xcel's 11 utilities serviced by the CapX program are proposing any new nuclear plants. Xcel Energy is also considering hydropower coming out of Manitoba, Canada, for additional electrical production in an ongoing effort to meet the constantly increasing demand for electrical power. This would be a 500 KV (high voltage) line with four Minnesota utilities interested in purchasing that power source.

Upgrading the grid

Looking at the total transmission grid serving America, Carlsgaard said upgrades are needed virtually everywhere, especially in the heavily populated and more-industrialized eastern seaboard area where they need a better system just to provide reliability.

"Their limited space creates huge challenges. In the Midwest we face a different issue," he said. "We need to upgrade because of our state-imposed renewable energy legislation, which mandates 25 percent renewable by 2020, and Xcel needs to be 30 percent from renewables by 2025. Our grids haven't been updated in 30 to 40 years so the pressure on Xcel is how do we create more capacity for renewable energy."

What's obvious in this growing challenge of upgrading the American power grid is that more transmission will be required and more wind farms will be needed to meet these new deadlines. The bottom line is that the landscape of rural Minnesota, and all of rural America, will continue to be redefined with the construction of huge new power lines, and a growing number of wind farms and wind turbines.

Currently Minnesota trails Texas, California and Iowa in wind capacity. Texas now claims nearly 7,300 megawatts of wind capacity. Minnesota is ramping up to nearly 2,000 megawatts of capacity.

"With these rapidly developing new energy projects plus the ever-growing demand for more electrical power, it's a matter of finding the right balance," Carlsgaard said. "And that includes the acceptance of more wind farms and 400-foot turbines, new transmission corridors for moving electricity from point A to point B, and a growing awareness of both the challenges and opportunities that the energy industry presents."

Originally published in the December 11, 2009, print edition.


Updated: 2016/06/30

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