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Both sides in Big Stone II plan disagree, but common ground found

BENSON -- If compromise is needed to craft an American energy policy, the Benson Bakery might be the place to make it happen. At least both sides in the Big Stone II power plant dispute found some common ground here, even if they continued to disagree on the issue at hand Wednesday morning during a get-together over coffee and doughnuts sponsored by the Big Stone II project.

"We'd like to see Otter Tail Power as a partner,'' Patrick Moore, of Clean Up our River Environment told Steve Schultz, manager of external affairs for the Big Stone II project with its lead developer, Otter Tail Power.

"Let's work together and let's create a distributive power generation system.''

The citizens organization Moore represents opposes the $1.6 billion, 500- to 580-megawatt coal plant proposed by five utilities to be built adjacent to the Big Stone I plant near Big Stone City, S.D. Moore voiced concern over the plant's impact on the water resources of the Minnesota River, and the mercury and carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal.

Moore also warned that Big Stone II will prove too costly to consumers. The U.S. will follow the rest of the developed world and assign a cost to carbon emissions, he said.

He urged Otter Tail Power and its partners to do more to promote energy conservation, and especially, to make possible wind and other smaller-scale energy projects which are locally owned and benefit the rural economy. Big Stone II will put money in the pockets of those owning Peabody Coal and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, but will do nothing to help farmers and others looking to develop wind power in the region, Moore claimed.

The plant's "super-sized'' transmission lines just won't carry the wind power the project's promoters advertise, according to Moore. It's too expensive to connect small wind farms to a high-voltage transmission system. "It's like a super highway no one can get on,'' Moore said.

He also charged that the system which oversees the transmission grid tends to favor large, well-financed coal projects in the Dakotas and elsewhere over farmers and landowners in western Minnesota with smaller-scale projects.

Schultz agreed that there are major challenges for western Minnesota wind power developers, but they are beyond Otter Tail Power's control. "Unfortunately for the little guys who have to operate with the big guys out there, that's the way the government passed the law,'' he said.

He agreed that there is an evolution going on in the energy industry today. Utilities have endorsed conservation and the benefits of finding a greater mix of energy sources, he said.

But Schultz said Otter Tail remains obligated first of all to consider costs and consumer needs, and it believes that coal is still the best means. The region needs low-cost, reliable power, and a base-load coal plant is critical to meeting the projected growth in power use in the region, according to Schultz.

"We can't conserve our way out of this,'' he said.

Schultz found support from Kory Johnson, manager of the Agralite Energy Cooperative in Benson, who was among those who joined the informal discussion. Johnson suggested that the big gains in energy conservation that Moore said are happening elsewhere in the world will be difficult to achieve here. The majority of housing in this region is aged. Most of the population lacks the resources to invest in energy-saving improvements, he explained.

But perhaps most important of all, Johnson said his cooperative is seeing energy demand increase thanks to growth in the region's industrial base. He said a base-load plant is needed to meet those growing needs.

Ultimately, the decision on which way to go belongs to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. Schultz and co-worker Sandy Christenson said the PUC is expected to decide either at the end of this year or early next year on whether to allow the transmission lines in Minnesota that are needed for the project.