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Demise of Big Stone II worries local utility

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WILLMAR -- Willmar Municipal Utilities General Manager Bruce Gomm says he's disappointed and worried about the demise of the proposed Big Stone II power plant and transmission line project.

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"We were counting on that not only for Willmar's needs but for the whole region. Without that, I'm very concerned about what will happen to the whole region,'' Gomm said in an interview this week.

Willmar Utilities had planned to buy 30 megawatts of power from the 500- to 600-megawatt Big Stone II plant to replace a 30-megawatt contract with Great River Energy that expires in 2015.

Developers of the proposed $1.6 billion electric power plantin northeastern South Dakota abandoned the project Monday, saying they were unable to recruit other investors after one of the principal backers -- Otter Tail Power -- pulled out.

The plant was meant to supply about 550 megawatts of power to utilities in North Dakota, South Dakota and southern Minnesota.

"We're worried about it,'' Gomm continued. "We know that the community has always been very supportive of us and our efforts. Big Stone was going to be one of the lowest cost options for us, and we'll have to search now and try to continue to find the next lowest cost option, whatever that is.''

Gomm said buying power from other producers will be even that much more difficult now because all the participants in Big Stone needed the power.

"They're all going to be out there shopping, too,'' he said.

On Monday, Big Stone II's remaining partners -- Montana-Dakota Utilities Co., of Bismarck, N.D., Missouri River Energy Services, of Sioux Falls, S.D., Heartland Consumers Power District, of Madison, S.D., and the Central Minnesota Municipal Power Agency, of Blue Earth, announced in a brief statement that the plant would not be built.

In addition to seeking out other power to purchase, Willmar will be looking at other options for more local generation and stepping up the utility's activities to get more power out of the local power plant, Gomm said.

Willmar had a peak load this year of 54.5 megawatts. The local power plant is rated at 15 megawatts but is limited to 8 megawatts by pollution control restrictions.

The demise of Big Stone II puts several major wind farms in jeopardy because the wind farms were planning to have access to the transmission lines that were to have been built as part of the Big Stone project, according to Gomm.

After nearly five years of publicly voicing opposition to the project, the Clean Up the River Environment board of directors is setting its sights on collaborating with rural electric co-ops and municipalities that are now turning to alternative power sources to supply energy that would have come from Big Stone II.

"We have said for the past four years that the cheapest new form of reliable electricity generation is wind backed by natural gas," said CURE renewable energy consultant Duane Ninneman. "Now it looks as if several of the former Big Stone II partners will be going in that direction."

CURE, located in Montevideo, is discussing ways regional rural electric cooperatives and municipal power companies can bring solar energy, wind and ramped-up energy-efficiency projects to communities of the Upper Minnesota River Watershed.

"We will soon view our shift to smart-clean energy in the same way we have come to embrace and expect Internet and cell service,'' said Ninneman. "At the foundation of this system is energy efficiency and conservation delivered in a partnership between electric utilities and their customers.''

He said CURE is working with business owners, the city of Montevideo Economic Development Authority, the Montevideo School District and the Chippewa County Habitat for Humanity to teach about and construct an energy-efficient, low-income home.

"There is a tremendous opportunity to create sustainable jobs that will help our region emerge as a leader in the clean energy economy," said CURE executive director Patrick Moore. "In this new clean energy economy, every home, every business and every institution has an opportunity to become a renewable energy generation facility.''

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150
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