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Supporters and opponents of Big Stone II power lines await judges' recommendation

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WILLMAR -- Supporters and opponents of the proposed Big Stone II power plant in eastern South Dakota are waiting to hear if construction will be recommended for new transmission lines to serve the power plant.

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Administrative law judges Steve Milhalchick and Barbara Neilson will recommend to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission whether or not a certificate of need and a route permit should be issued to build the lines in western Minnesota.

In addition, the Minnesota Department of Commerce will recommend whether the need for the transmission lines is in the public interest, but the final decision on that recommendation also rests with the commission.

Milhalchick and Neilson took comments and testimony from power plant supporters and opponents during six days of meetings sponsored by the Department of Commerce in October and during several days of commission hearings in December.

They'll prepare findings of fact, conclusions of law and make their recommendations to the Public Utilities Commission, probably in March or April.

"Now everyone waits for the administrative law judges' recommendation,'' said Dan Sharp, communications manager for the Big Stone II project.

Elizabeth Goodpaster, staff attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy in St. Paul, said she does not expect action from the Public Utilities Commission before the end of March, and April is more likely.

By the time the commission hearings ended on Dec. 22, the Department of Commerce was recommending the application for the certificate of need and route permit be denied, according to Goodpaster.

Bill Walsh, director of communications for the Department of Commerce, said he doesn't know if the department is officially opposed. He said it's more accurate to say power plant proponents haven't yet met the burden of proof for the transmission lines.

But Walsh said he couldn't discuss why the burden hasn't been met, saying the department treats it as litigation.

"We're working with them, trying to overcome some of the hurdles and meet that burden,'' he said. "We're talking about the need for the transmission lines. That's Minnesota's role in this. That's the PUC's role. When we say they haven't met the burden of proof yet, it's to prove there is a need for the transmission lines.''

The Tribune asked Walsh if Department of Commerce recommendations affect the commission's decision.

"It's the extent to which they listen to our recommendation,'' said Walsh. "They do a lot, but not always. The PUC members have the final say, or sometimes the administrative law judge, depending on what we're doing.''

Goodpaster said the proponents haven't demonstrated that the lines are needed according to state statutes. She said the center believes the plant isn't necessary; therefore the transmission facilities are not necessary. Also, the proponents missed some statutory hurdles, she said.

"We think the costs of the Big Stone project have gone up considerably and believe they are failing to consider future regulatory costs associated with regulating carbon dioxide global warming pollution, and their failure to consider that makes this a much more expensive project than they're letting on,'' said Goodpaster.

Sharp said the plant's estimated price increase from $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion includes $250 million to $300 million for transmission, which wasn't part of the original estimate.

Sharp also said cost increases will provide about 5 percent more generating capacity, which increased output from 600 megawatts to 630 megawatts. He said more efficient boilers are planned that will require 20 percent less coal, reducing carbon dioxide by 20 percent.

Also, Sharp said future regulatory costs have been considered.

"They were saying there would be $20 to $30 added onto each ton of coal to compensate for the fact that we're putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,'' said Sharp. "But the testimony that our witnesses provided felt that that would probably be maybe in the range of $5 to $6, certainly no more than $7.

"If those costs were included in each ton of coal that the plant burns, the plant would still be cost-effective,'' he said.

Sharp said the partners are installing or will install another 1½ megawatts of either wind energy or other renewable energy for each megawatt of coal-fired electricity.

"To characterize it as just a coal project is not fair,'' said Sharp. "In order to get the wind resource on the lines, the transmission upgrades have to come about. If we want more generation, whether it's coal, wind or biomass or whatever, we have to upgrade our transmission grid.''

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