Crucial power lines meant for Big Stone II still an optionby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
Worthington, Minn. — The Big Stone II power plant is dead, but at least one part of the project may live on. There is interest in building the power lines planned for the abandoned coal plant project in eastern South Dakota and those lines could be crucial to the wind power industry.
There's plenty of land in western Minnesota and eastern South Dakota for wind farms; there's also more than enough wind. But even with all that wind, what's often lacking is a way to get the power to market. There are not enough electric lines.
"It always has been the primary issue," said Jim Newcomb, whose company is planning to build two wind farms in South Dakota.
Newcomb was counting on using the same lines that would have carried Big Stone II electricity toward the Twin Cities to haul his wind energy too. But now that the Big Stone II partners have ditched plans for the big coal plant, Newcomb's wind farms are on hold until the power lines issue is figured out. That's why he and other wind developers are interested in talk that the Big Stone lines may yet get built.
"About any capacity that gets built to deliver production from South Dakota and North Dakota is going to be helpful," Newcomb said.
Newcomb may have reason for optimism. Last month, the Big Stone power plant group sent a letter to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. The utilities told the PUC that even though they will not build the coal plant, they would still like to see the power lines go up. For the partners' it could be a way to recoup some of the investment they just abandoned.
"We have easements and a route siting permit in place that they could use," said Mark Hanson, Big Stone's spokesman. "Another entity could purchase those."
Hanson said he doesn't know yet what the purchase price would be. The PUC approved two power lines for the plant, totaling about 100 miles. One runs from the Big Stone site just west of Ortonville up to Morris in west central Minnesota. The second goes from the plant site to Canby and then on to Granite Falls, about 125 miles west of Minneapolis.
The price tag to build the lines is estimated at about $230 million. That's a lot of money, but advocates say the payoff could be even bigger.
"Well, it's got huge potential benefits," said Patrick Moore, executive director of CURE, an environmental group based in Montevideo. "The wind that blows over this region is a potential wealth generator for the local people."
CURE fought the coal plant idea and welcomed the project's demise. They said coal was too expensive, economically and environmentally, compared to renewable energy. With the coal plant's death, Moore hopes something can still be salvaged from the years of debate over the project.
"We're in favor of taking another look at these power lines and how they can be reconfigured from serving coal to serving wind instead," Moore said.
The proposed transmission lines were so potentially valuable they led to a wind-energy gold rush in the area. By one estimate, at least 1000 megawatts of wind energy are in the planning stages in the region. That's enough power to serve more than 300,000 homes.
And, it's more than double the electricity the Big Stone II coal plant would have generated.
The big question is who pays to build the lines. Traditionally, utilities, and by extension their customers, pay for power lines. Now, utilities like Otter Tail Power, one of the original Big Stone partners, say wind farms that benefit from the lines should shoulder their share of the cost.
Tim Rogelstad oversees power line planning for Otter Tail Power. He said Otter Tail might support building the lines, if everyone pays their fair share. If not, he said the lines might not be built, which would short circuit development of a prime wind power area.
"Without the Big Stone II transmission facilities it's going to be very difficult to develop the generation in that region of the state," Rogelstad said.
Supporters of the power lines say failing to act will cost the region a great deal of lost economic development. The investment in jobs and equipment to build 1000 megawatts of wind energy is well over a billion dollars. But if the lines eventually get built, the coal plant reviled by environmentalists may well leave a green legacy.