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Big Stone II opponents question company's statment on accommodating wind energy

By David Little

West Central Tribune

WILLMAR -- Renewable energy and clean water advocates question a power company official's statement that an upgraded Big Stone II transmission line will accommodate wind-generated electricity.

The statement by Rick Lancaster, vice president of generation for Great River Energy of Elk River, was published July 24 in a Tribune story. Great River Energy is a partner in the proposed 600-megawatt, coal-fired Big Stone II power plant and transmission line project.

Lancaster said the capacity of the transmission line from the proposed plant near Big Stone City, S.D., through Minnesota will be upgraded to carry power from wind generators and other energy sources.

"We could build it at 230,000 volts, and we're building it at 345,000 volts to help be part of a regional solution to get more wind power out of southwestern Minnesota and eastern South Dakota toward the big market in the Twin Cities,'' Lancaster said in the story published July 24.

Duane Ninneman of Ortonville, long-range development consultant with Clean Up the River Environment of Montevideo and a CURE wind-energy consultant, said the Big Stone II partners don't really know whether or not a 230,000-volt line will be large enough to take the capacity of the plant or whether or not a larger portion of a 345,000-volt line would actually be needed also.

"But more importantly, the notion that the line would be built larger on behalf of renewable energy, since there's no renewable energy designated for that line, is not exactly the truth coming from Great River Energy with the fact that the (Midwest Independent System Operator) is the organization that determines what gets on that line,'' said Ninneman.

Midwest ISO, headquartered in Carmel, Ind., was established in 1998 and manages the electrical power grid for all or parts of 15 states and one Canadian province, according to the nonprofit organization's Web site.

"The only way they could actually say that renewable energy will be used on a larger line is if they first are sanctioned by Minnesota Public Utilities Commission in the same way that Xcel Energy was for their upgrade of their southern Minnesota line to 345,000 volts whereby space was actually reserved for renewable energy,'' he said.

"And even if the PUC says that, the PUC can only do that within limits of MISO. It's not a sure thing, but it's the closest thing that they could say is a sure thing for renewable energy. At this point there's all sorts of things that make their statement that this line is being built for renewable energy inaccurate,'' said Ninneman.

He also said other coal-fired power plants and other energy users west of Big Stone could very likely or may already have spoken for space in what's called the MISO queue.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group says as of June that 150 coal-fired power plants are being planned, of which 50 are in the Midwest.

Andrew Falk of Murdock, a CURE consultant and an independent wind energy developer, said Midwest ISO has authority over the transmission system in its area. Falk said Lancaster has no grounds to say renewable energy can be placed on the line because he doesn't have the authority to say what goes on it.

Falk said he's trying to get a wind energy project into the queue but was disappointed to learn that all of the transmission space had been spoken for a long time ago.

"Because those projects and plants are in the queue, and I add my project -- it's first-come, first-served -- my project is at the bottom,'' said Falk.

"Even if I put up a renewable project like wind turbines that go on live next year, I may be given transmission space for the period of time up until the point where that new coal generation comes on, at which point my project -- which everybody supports -- would be bumped from the queue and not given transmission space,'' he said.

Big Stone II's estimated cost is $1.3 billion. Falk says that for an equivalent cost, wind generators could produce twice as much energy. Data from the Department of Commerce show that wind development in western Minnesota is economically feasible.

"We understand that wind doesn't blow all the time. But if you have wind displaced over a large enough area, wind is always blowing someplace. There's a lot of potential for wind that people don't want look at,'' he said.

CURE, which is working to restore the scenic beauty, water quality and biological integrity of the upper Minnesota River, is also raising public awareness about mercury levels in tributaries and the main stem of the upper Minnesota River watershed, according to Patrick Moore of Montevideo, CURE executive director.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Web site says mercury can produce adverse health effects in humans at sufficiently high doses and may be hazardous to animals.

Ninneman said the Big Stone II partners are not using the best available technology, such as carbon injection, to reduce mercury. He said recent Environmental Protection Agency and Canadian studies show the majority of mercury contamination in any area comes from the nearest mercury source.

"A half-teaspoon of mercury can contaminate a 50-acre lake,'' he said. "There is enough mercury annually coming out of that plant now to continue to contaminate all of the waterways in western Minnesota.''