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Minnesota looks at electric lines

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ST. PAUL -- Minnesotans soon can tell state officials what they think of a plan to add hundreds of miles of electric transmission lines across the state.

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A group of 11 utilities, led by Xcel Energy, has proposed building three high-voltage transmission lines in Minnesota and neighboring states, claiming they are needed to improve service and prepare for growing electricity demands.

Utilities involved in the CapX 2020 project are seeking a critical document called a "certificate of need" for the project.

To move forward, they must convince the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission the transmission lines are needed.

A state agency has scheduled 10 public meetings over the next two weeks in northwestern, western and southern Minnesota to take public comment.

Commerce Department officials say information from those hearings and from written submissions will be used to design an environmental review of the project. That review will be considered when the Public Utilities Commission decides whether to grant the utilities' certificate of need.

Opponents say this is an early, but critical, stage of the process. They say if the utilities get the certificate, it could be very difficult to stop the project.

The CapX 2020 utilities say the three high-voltage lines - plus a related lower-voltage connection from Bemidji to Grand Rapids - are needed to fix reliability problems in some areas of the state, including northern Minnesota, the Red River Valley and Alexandria.

"The system is running out of gas; it needs to be upgraded," said Tim Carlsgaard, Xcel Energy's communications manager for the project.

Proponents also want to build the lines to accommodate an increasing electricity demand expected to accompany population growth in the region over roughly the next decade. Also, they say they are looking for new ways to transmit wind-generated electricity.

The CapX 2020 plan calls for three 345-kilovolt electric transmission lines:

-- A 250-mile line from an existing substation in Fargo southeast through Alexandria and St. Cloud to a substation in Monticello, roughly following the Interstate 94 corridor.

The Alexandria and St. Cloud areas face reliability problems and have experienced considerable growth in recent decades, Carlsgaard said.

-- A 200-mile line from a substation in South Dakota's Brookings County east through Marshall and Redwood Falls in western Minnesota to a new substation in Hampton, south of St. Paul. A related line would head north from Marshall to Granite Falls.

-- A 150-mile line from Hampton south to Rochester and then east to La Crosse, Wis.

An alternative route would send the lines from Hampton east to the Prairie Island nuclear plant in Red Wing and then south toward Rochester and on to La Crosse, but that option is not preferred, said Grant Stevenson, project manager for that line.

The companies have outlined possible route corridors for the transmission lines, each averaging about 10 miles to 12 miles wide. An estimated 73,000 property owners who could be affected by construction of the three lines, but the utilities say only a small percentage of those landowners would be impacted.

Specific routes for the proposed lines have not been determined. The utilities plan to seek a routing permit in early fall next year.

Not everyone is convinced the high-voltage lines are needed.

Red Wing attorney Carol Overland has tracked the CapX 2020 proposal and operates a Web site that attempts to debunk the utilities' claim about needed transmission expansion.

Overland said a better alternative to the high-voltage lines would be to add generation facilities close to where the electricity is needed, rather than distributing the juice across hundreds of miles of transmission lines.

"We're dealing with this false justification of need," said Overland, who will challenge the utilities' claims at the upcoming meetings.

The certificate of need under consideration only is for the three 345-kilovolt lines.

The utilities plan to seek a certificate of need and routing permit at the same time for the 230-kilovolt line connecting Bemidji and Grand Rapids, but if approved construction of the four lines could be done simultaneously.

The Bemidji-Grand Rapids line could be complete by 2013; the three higher-voltage lines are expected in service by 2014.

Total cost for the four power lines is estimated at $1.4 billion to $1.7 billion. Completion of the project would increase an Xcel Energy customer's bill by less than $2, the company says.

In addition to Xcel Energy, the utilities involved in the CapX 2020 project are Otter Tail Power Co., Central Minnesota Municipal Power Agency, Dairyland Power Cooperative, Great River Energy, Minnesota Power, Minnesota Power Cooperative, Missouri River Energy Services, Rochester Public Utilities, Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency and Wisconsin Public Power Inc.

An Otter Tail Power official compared the need for more transmission capacity to the need to build a new road when traffic stifles an existing roadway.

"Our studies have indicated that our system's running out of capacity," said Tim Rogelstad, Otter Tail Power's delivery planning manager. "Therefore as load continues to grow in this region, we need to expand the system."

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, a key opponent to the Big Stone II coal plant and transmission line project in South Dakota and western Minnesota, is not objecting to the CapX 2020 certificate of need.

That the CapX transmission lines would not be linked to construction of a coal-fired power plant, which "makes all the difference in the world," said Beth Goodpaster, an attorney with the environmental group.

More information:

-- www.capx2020.com

-- www.nocapx2020.info

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