Eleven utilities are proposing CapX 2020. They want to beef up the transmission system by building big new lines around the state.
In the first phase they would build four lines: one from Brookings, South Dakota to the Twin Cities, another from the Twin Cities to La Crosse, Wisconsin, a third from Fargo to Monticello, and a short one from Bemidji to Grand Rapids.
The utilities said the lines are needed to meet increasing demand for power. And they said it doesn't matter whether the new power comes from coal plants in North and South Dakota, or wind farms in western Minnesota.
Jim Alders is with Xcel Energy, one of the partners in the project.
"It's not about coal plants; it's not about renewables," Alders said. "It's about what kind of infrastructure to transmit power is needed regardless of what generation is chosen in the future."
“The people in the position to do the best analysis have willfully let us down.”Arne Kildegaard
But to environmentalists, it matters very much. Some environmental groups are supporting the CapX project, but with a condition. They want the utilities to set aside some room on the wires for power generated by wind.
Beth Soholt directs a non-profit group called Wind on the Wires.
"We need more transmission, that's the glass ceiling right now for renewable energy projects," Soholt said.
Soholt said companies developing wind power projects and utilities like Xcel need each other. The utilities are required by law to provide more energy from renewable sources like wind, and the wind power producers need to get their energy to our homes.
"It's a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing," Soholt said. "You can't have a viable project unless you have a power purchase agreement, and Xcel can't have viable projects to purchase unless the developers are able to put all their pieces together. So it seems to me that the easiest thing for everyone to achieve the goals we have would be to actually do power purchase agreements and get this stuff going."
So far, Xcel and the other partners in the CapX project have been unwilling to sign those agreements with wind power companies.
And that's just one reason why other environmental advocates are skeptical about the motives of the utilities as they push for these power lines.
But what are the alternatives to more power lines, if Minnesotans insist on using more energy all the time? Some say better conservation programs, smaller-scale power plants located closer to where the need is, and something called demand-side management, could make a big difference. Demand-side management includes smart systems like cycling air conditioners off and on during peak-demand times.
Arne Kildegaard teaches economics at the University of Minnesota Morris. He said the utilities are so attached to their usual way of doing business -- large scale projects to meet big needs -- they haven't really looked at those alternatives.
"I really don't want to go out on a limb and say these things will be cheaper," Kildegaard said. "What I do want to go out on a limb saying is that they really haven't been systematically considered. I mean, the people in the position to do the best analysis have willfully let us down."
The four projects proposed under CapX are only the first phase of additional transmission infrastructure the utilities want to build.
The public comment period for CapX ends Sept. 26.