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Big Stone power plant plans go down, but will the lines still go up?

An existing 230-kilovolt power line is shown Wednesday near Granite Falls. The now-defunct Big Stone II project included plans to upgrade transmission capacity on two corridors in the region: a line from the existing Big Stone plant near Milbank, S.D., to Morris and a line from the plant to Canby and from Canby to Granite Falls. Though a second plant will not be built, there remains interest by unnamed parties to preserve the route of the planned upgrades. Tribune photo by Susan Lunneborg

WILLMAR -- Plans to build the coal-fired Big Stone II power plant have gone down, but there apparently remains interest in seeing upgraded transmission lines going up that were once promised as part of the project.

The lines were to have included excess capacity available for carrying wind power.

The partners in the Big Stone II project recently filed a notice with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to relinquish their certificate of need for the coal plant. However, they also asked the PUC to preserve the route for the transmission lines that were to be upgraded as part of the original Big Stone II project, according to Bob Cupit, senior facilities planner with the PUC.

Cupit said the request does not indicate who may be interested in the route, or what new power would be carried.

However, several different wind project proposals had been looking at the lines as a means of transmitting electricity, according to information from the Midwest Independent System Operator, which oversees the distribution grid in the upper Midwest.

A spokesman for MISO said wind power developers had submitted proposals that included using the upgraded lines proposed as part of the Big Stone II project.

Cupit said the Public Utilities Commission is likely to formally retract the permit for the Big Stone II project by year's end. If the transmission route is to be preserved for added capacity, a formal application by the interested parties would need to be brought to the board, he said.

At that point the PUC and public will learn what parties are interested in the lines.

The demise of Big Stone II will likely affect plans for some wind power projects, but wind power will benefit in the long run, according to Lisa Daniels, director and founder of Windustry. The organization promotes wind power development in Minnesota. She pointed out that the lines were to be built primarily to carry power from the coal-fired plant.

There were questions about how much capacity would actually be available for wind power on the lines, she said. Many also wondered if the "synergy'' promised in a partnership between a base-load, coal plant and wind farms would be as beneficial as promised, Daniels said.

She believes that wind energy will have more opportunity to grow by serving the market that Big Stone II would have supplied. South Dakota and Minnesota have robust wind resources to harness, particularly in the area where the power plant was proposed, she added.

Plans for the Big Stone II coal plant included upgrading transmission lines along two corridors in this area to carry power to the east.

The proposal included upgrading a line from the existing Big Stone plant near Milbank, S.D., to Morris.

It also included upgrading a line from the plant to Canby and upgrading the line from Canby to Granite Falls.

Otter Tail Power was one of the original partners in the Big Stone II project, but withdrew from the project earlier this year. It does not have plans for upgrading the transmission lines now, according to Otter Tail spokeswoman Cris Kling.

Otter Tail Power's role as the lead developer for the Big Stone II project was assumed by Montana-Dakota Power. Spokesman Mark Hanson said he is not aware of any plans by the utility to upgrade the lines either.

The decision to scrap the Big Stone II power project will not affect the CAPX proposal to expand transmission capacity in Minnesota, according to Randy Fordice with Great River Energy.

Eleven utilities, led by Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy and Great River Energy of Maple Grove, propose to spend $1.4 billion to $1.7 billion to build hundreds of miles of new high-voltage lines from North Dakota and South Dakota across Minnesota to the Twin Cities and Wisconsin.

The power lines would run between Fargo, N.D., and the St. Cloud area; between Brookings, S.D., and the southeast edge of the Twin Cities; and from the southern edge of Dakota County through Rochester to La Crosse, Wis.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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