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Judges provide their support to Big Stone II power lines

WILLMAR -- Two administrative law judges are recommending the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission allow transmission lines be built to carry power to Minnesota from the Big Stone II power plant proposed near Big Stone City, S.D.

The recommendation will go to the Public Utilities Commission for a final decision.

In an order issued Wednesday, administrative law judges Steve Mihalchick and Barbara Neilson recommended the PUC grant a certificate of need to allow construction and operation of the power lines. The judges recommended the PUC issue routing permits for two lines: a 230-kilovolt line from the South Dakota border to the Morris substation; and a 345-kilovolt line from the South Dakota border to the Granite Falls substation. The decision was made from testimony in December from representatives of seven power companies and agencies proposing to build a 630-megawatt power plant in eastern South Dakota and from groups against the plant.

Supporters of the $1.6 billion plant say the need for energy is growing in South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota.

Customers in Willmar would be among those eventually receiving Big Stone II power. The Willmar Municipal Utilities will be buying up to 10 megawatts through Central Minnesota Municipal Power Agency of Blue Earth, one of the plant's partners.

Bruce Gomm, Willmar Municipal Utilities general manager, is pleased with the recommendations.

"It's a big step and we think it's the right decision," Gomm said Thursday. "CMMPA hasn't gone through the whole decision yet, but they're in the process of reviewing it. But after looking at the final recommendations, they're feeling pretty positive about it. So we're hopeful this is a step in the right direction."

Dan Sharp, communications manager for the Big Stone II project, says the judges' recommendation is a big step toward getting the power plant built. The new plant will be located next to a smaller coal-fired plant.

Sharp says the project will cost more than $1.5 billion; of which $250 million will be spent on approximately 140 miles of new or upgraded transmission lines, with about 110 miles in Minnesota and the remainder in South Dakota.

Sharp said the judges agreed with plant supporters' electric-load forecasts and acknowledged that future load could not be fully satisfied by conservation measures and renewable energy. Also, according to Sharp, the judges said Big Stone II is the least-cost option for base-load electricity.

As South Dakota officials have already approved construction of the plant, opponents had hoped to stop the project by convincing the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to reject the request for power line approval.

A spokesman for the Izaak Walton League said the recommendation would "doom South Dakota and Minnesota to a huge increase in global warming pollution" for at least the next 30 years.

"We are deeply disappointed and we think the administrative law judges got it wrong on two counts: the Big Stone power companies presented no credible alternatives and claimed carbon costs don't matter," said Bill Grant, Izaak Walton League of America associate executive director.

The League, along with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Fresh Energy, Union of Concerned Scientists and Wind on the Wires argued against granting the certificate of need. They'll ask the PUC to ignore the recommendation and reject the certificate of need.

Beth Goodpaster, a lawyer for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy who argued against the case, was perplexed by the recommendations.

"The judges agreed with us on all the legal points we made and that there are substantial defects in the Big Stone utilities' analyses, yet they recommended approval of the certificate of need," said Goodpaster.

Environmental groups argued in December that the power companies do not need much of that electricity. In addition, they argued that the companies had not considered the increased costs of burning coal when states and perhaps Congress begin passing laws to cut carbon dioxide.

The groups noted the judges recommended that the PUC consider adding conditions to the certificate of need. Those conditions would require Big Stone II owners offset the 4.7 million tons of carbon that will be produced every year, develop 120 megawatts of electricity from energy sources within the counties the lines would pass through, and double their energy efficiency savings.