Eleven utilities have been working on the so-called CapX 2020 project for four years. The companies are determined to avoid the bitter controversy that plagued the last major high-voltage power line project, they say. That project was built in central Minnesota in the late 1970s. In those days, farmers were so angry at the power companies, they cut down power poles and blocked the project in other ways.
This time, the utilities have set up a huge public relations effort. They mailed notices to more than 70,000 people along broad corridors where the lines might travel, warning them the planning process is underway.
The four new high-voltage lines would make the electric grid more reliable, especially in parts of the state where the population is growing, says Laura McCarten, Xcel Energy's Director of Regional Transmission Planning, who also helps direct the CapX initiative.
"Because of the customer growth, we need new source, new pathways, to deliver electricity in areas like St. Cloud, Rochester, Alexandria: that without building something, those communities are at risk of reduced reliability."
One line would run from Fargo North Dakota to St. Cloud and Monticello. Another would run from Brookings, S.D. to the southeast metro area. A third would run between the Twin Cities and La Crosse, Wisc. A much shorter line would connect Bemidji and Grand Rapids.
All these lines are designed to move power from existing generating plants to existing homes and businesses.
But at least one long-time critic of the electric power industry in Minnesota argues the utilities are working the wrong way.
George Crocker, who directs the North American Water Office, a group that got its start back in the power line fight of the 1970s, has long promoted the idea of distributed generation -- small amounts of power from small producers like windmills, that could spring up all over the state.
A study just published this week shows utilities could add power from distributed generation to the lower-voltage lines that already criss-cross Minnesota, he says.
"Think of how a river forms. It's because all of the little rivers join the big river. It's not the big river telling the little rivers where to go; it's the little rivers that tell the big river where to go. It's the same with power if we do it smartly."
The lower-voltage system can collect small amounts of power, and add it to the high-voltage system, where it would ultimately travel to where it's needed, he says.
That method is simpler and quicker and cheaper to add both generation and transmission at lower power levels. Crocker predicts the study -- called the Dispersed Renewable Generation Transmission Study -- will change how we get energy.
"When the value of this type of thinking percolates into the management of how utilities operate, we won't even be thinking about CapX-type development anymore. This is a real deal that I am absolutely certain we will not pass up."
Not everyone sees the report the same way, though.
Adding small power plants anywhere along the line affects the entire grid, says Jared Alholinna, transmission planner at Great River Energy, who helped write the report.
"The system east of the Rockies is all connected and the electrons don't always flow in a straight path. Let's say from a generation plant to the Twin Cities it takes circuitous paths, sometimes as far north as Manitoba, and sometimes as far south as Nebraska, in making its way back up, but that's what leads to regional reliability in a transmission grid."
There has to be enough high-voltage power lines to accommodate added power, he says.
"Just like congestion on a freeway, one of the ideas is that you build a bigger freeway, so you can accommodate more cars and there's less congestion. Especially when generation tends to travel further distances."
The power lines proposed in the CapX 2020 project are needed now, the utilities say. They're planning a second and third phase, and they'll start talking about those next year. Meanwhile, they're preparing environmental studies on CapX. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will rule on whether the lines are needed in the fall. Construction is not scheduled to start until 2010.