Minnesota wants changes in South Dakota power plant

Big Stone from Ortonville
The Big Stone power plant site is just a few miles west of Ortonville, Minnesota. Big Stone II would be built next to the current plant.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

The governor's plans to fight global warming are part of what he calls his Next Generation Energy Initiative. In a speech last December, Pawlenty said power companies must do their part.

"Our global climate is warming at least in part due to the energy sources that we use," said Pawlenty. "Minnesotans didn't create this problem by ourselves obviously, nor can we solve it by ourselves, nor can the midwest. But there are things that we can do to do our part." Pawlenty wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal and other energy sources. He wants more energy conservation, more wind and other renewable sources.

When it comes to power companies, the policies are most easily enforced within Minnesota. State regulators decide all sorts of issues surrounding power plants, including whether new facilities are built.

"The power plant is not within Minnesota and should not be considered."

But even in the case of the proposed Big Stone II power plant in South Dakota, Minnesota officials believe they can have a deciding voice. Their lever of influence is a transmission line project in western Minnesota. The lines will carry electricity from Big Stone to its Minnesota customers.

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Big Stone II communications manager Dan Sharp says the lines are crucial to the project. He says if the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission turns down the transmission lines, the plant will not be built.

"Our position is that the Public Utilities Commission should be considering what we're applying for and that is transmission within the state," says Sharp. "The power plant is not within Minnesota and should not be considered."

However, Minnesota officials are making the power plant an issue.

Last month a state Commerce Department deputy commissioner recommended against approving the transmission lines unless certain conditions are met.

Gov. Pawlenty
Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty says asking for carbon emission offsets and other steps at the Big Stone II plant are reasonable requests.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

State officials want the Big Stone partners to build more renewable energy, like wind farms. They want the companies to help consumers conserve more electricity. And they want action taken on Big Stone II's carbon dioxide emissions, the most dangerous greenhouse gas. Dan Sharp says the cost of meeting those conditions could jeopardize the $1.5 billion project.

"It all boils down to how much is this going to cost our customers and are there alternatives," says Sharp. "In other words are the costs of these recommendations so expensive that we can't live with them."

The carbon dioxide issue alone could cost Big Stone $19 million a year. That's how much it would cost to buy carbon credits. Those credits come from less polluting companies and work to offset the Big Stone emissions.

It seems like a lot of money, but $19 million figures out to less than a dollar a month per customer.

Rick Lancaster is with Great River Energy of Elk River, Minnesota, one of the companies planning to build Big Stone II. It would sit next to an existing power plant in South Dakota, just a few miles west of the Minnesota border. Lancaster says while the carbon price per customer may be small, it's still unfair.

"We don't feel that low income consumers who are on our system, and are our owners because we're a consumer owned cooperative, should have to pay more to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions when other consumers in the United States do not have to do that," says Lancaster.

Lancaster says the Big Stone partners will meet with Minnesota state officials to see if there's room for compromise. Governor Tim Pawlenty says he feels addressing carbon emissions is a reasonable request.

"Before we authorize a big transmission line that essentially supports a plant that some see as a problem in that regard we think that's an appropriate thing to ask for," says Pawlenty.

The debate over Big Stone II comes as utility officials warn that the region may soon be short of electricity. They say the recent cold weather underscores the need. Power companies this week asked customers to conserve electricity as frigid temperatures caused a spike in energy use.