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Big Stone II power plant partners study independent report

WILLMAR -- Electric utilities proposing the Big Stone II power plant are just starting to analyze an independent report that says the utilities have underestimated construction costs and overestimated the costs of energy alternatives.

The report to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission was prepared by Boston Pacific Co. of Washington, D.C., at the PUC's request.

The PUC voted in June to continue its inquiry into the proposal to build transmission lines designed to deliver power from the plant near Milbank, S.D., to the Twin Cities and other cities in the region, including Willmar.

The power plant would be built in South Dakota, but the utilities need the PUC's permission to run the power lines into Minnesota.

The PUC deferred the decision on the certificate of need and route permits for the transmission lines and required additional proceedings to obtain independent, supplemental expert opinion and information concerning various cost factors affecting the proposed transmission facilities, including the plant.

Administrative Law Judge Steven Mihalchick has tentatively scheduled a reconvened evidentiary hearing in mid-November. The matter is tentatively expected to be back before the Public Utilities Commission in January.

"It's really early. We've just got it late Wednesday,'' said Steve Schultz, manager of external affairs for the Big Stone II project.

"I don't know if I'm really qualified to speak on that yet. We will have more information on that. We're just analyzing it to see if we're far apart or not,'' Schultz told the Tribune during a Thursday morning open house on the Big Stone II project at the Willmar Municipal Utilities building.

Two of the original seven partners have since dropped out. The cost estimate has increased from $1 billion to $1.6 billion and the plant's output has been reduced to 500-580 megawatts.

Schultz has been holding open houses around the region. His message is that the five partners are still working on the project and that the permitting process in South Dakota and Minnesota should be completed by the end of this year or early next year.

Schultz said the coal-fired power plant, proposed more than four years ago, has taken far longer than the partners had hoped.

"The dates have been pushed around a lot, but the need is still there. So we've got to do something,'' he said.

Construction will take four years and involve about 1,400 workers.

"It'll be busy when it goes,'' Schultz said. "We're working hard. We sure aren't giving up on the project by any means.''

Schultz said the proposed transmission lines will have room for energy from alternative sources such as wind.

"Space will be made available on first-come, first-served basis. But based on what's happening in our region, it would appear that wind would be the one that will use it up, and we're fine with that.''