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Power line plan may be live wire

Xcel Energy officials are gearing up to make a case that Minnesota's electricity needs require a massive expansion of transmission lines.

The project would extend new high-voltage transmission lines from the Twin Cities to Rochester, approximately 150 miles.

Xcel officials anticipate the line would head south through Hampton on its way to Rochester, though they won't rule out a second option that would run lines east to the Prairie Island nuclear plant.

Utility officials will present their case - possibly by July - to the state's Public Utilities Commission.

Notices to be sent

Before that hearing begins approximately 17,000 area will receive notice of the project, an Xcel official said.

"We're at the beginning of what will be a long and expensive and very open public process," said Laura McCarten, co-executive director for what's called the CapX 2020 initiative.

Preliminary cost estimates for the CapX 2020 project are at about $1.3 billion, she said. Xcel predicts that would mean about $1.50 more a month for the average customer.

McCarten said Department of Commerce figures show electricity use in Minnesota has doubled since 1980 but transmission infrastructure hasn't kept pace.

Is it needed?

Opponents of the project reject Xcel's claim that the state's electricity needs will soon outstrip the ability to deliver them. The PUC will be tasked with sorting that out, but one Red Wing resident has her doubts that the need even exists.

Carol Overland, an advocacy attorney on utility, regulatory and land-use issues, said Xcel overestimates the need, citing a North American Electric Reliability Council study showing demand in the immediate area growing by .6 percent.

She suspects the project - to be linked with other transmission lines - is instead using Minnesota land as a conduit to provide more power to the East Coast.

"Is that something that should be built on the backs of Minnesota ratepayers and landowners?" Overland said.

She also noted that a Minnesota Supreme Court decision limits transmission projects to existing corridors. That would likely mean the project following the alternate route to Prairie Island, she said.

Also watching the CapX 2020 project closely is the Prairie Island Indian Community. Attorneys for the tribe filed a letter with the PUC, stating that the project could have "a significant potential impact, whether direct or indirect."

In the March 2007 letter, tribal officials said they would reserve judgment on the project, but pledged to be heavily involved in a process McCarten said could take more than a year.

Statewide transmission efforts received a major boost from the Legislature during the 2005 session.

Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said he sees a need for the new power lines, especially considering the new wind generation sources that were mandated through a renewable energy standard signed into law this year.

"If we're going to be a leader in this state in renewable energy," Murphy, an Xcel employee said, "you've got to move it from where you generate to where you need it."