Big Stone power plant expansion gets green light

Big Stone Power plant
The Big Stone power plant in South Dakota. A coalition of utilities has gotten the green light to build a second coal-fired plant there, called Big Stone II.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

A group of seven electricity companies want to build the new power plant in South Dakota, just a few miles west of Ortonville, Minnesota. Big Stone II would go up next to an existing coal fired plant.

More than half the electricity from the new facility would be sent to Minnesota. That's where the power lines come in.

control room
The air filtering system at the existing Big Stone power plant is nearly a block long and five stories high.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

The new transmission system is planned for western Minnesota to carry electricity from Big Stone II throughout the state. The lines are so important the Big Stone partners say without them, the new power plant cannot be built.

Maynard Meyer is on the city council in the western Minnesota community of Madison. He was happy to hear the administrative law judges supported the power line project.

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"Big Stone II will be helping us to meet the increasing needs for electricity in the area," said Meyer. "The Madison City Council has passed two resolutions unanimously endorsing the project. And I think from that standpoint, we'll be happy to see that it's moving forward."

The administrative law judges recommended that the state approve the new power lines. That recommendation goes next to the Public Utilities Commission. The PUC is expected to vote on the issue sometime this fall.

There has been very little opposition to the idea of building new transmission lines. But there have been many people who hope they can use the power line issue as a way to block construction of the new coal plant.

There has been very little opposition to the idea of building new transmission lines. But many people hope they can use the power line issue as a way to block construction of the new coal plant.

Beth Goodpaster, with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, says the era of coal plants like Big Stone II should be over. She says the PUC should reject the power line project as a way to influence what sorts of energy projects are built in the future.

"Our position has been that the Big Stone utilities have not shown that the Big Stone plant and transmission lines are their cheapest alternative for meeting their future electricity needs," says Goodpaster.

Instead of coal, Goodpaster says the Big Stone partners should develop renewable sources of power production, like wind energy. She says the state of Minnesota this year adopted new laws designed to limit production of global warming gases.

Although Big Stone II will be built in South Dakota, Goodpaster says Minnesota officials could have a major impact on plans to build the plant, if it refuses to permit the power line projects needed for the coal plant.

Dan Sharp, communications manager for the Big Stone II project, says the administrative law judges' recommendation is a big step toward getting the power plant built.

Sharp says the entire project will cost more than a $1.5 billion; about $250 million of that will go for the new transmission lines.

"In order for that plant to be built, transmission lines must be upgraded in both South Dakota and in Minnesota," says Sharp. "The upgrades include an increase in voltage in some cases, and in other cases the addition of new lines."

An important new element will be added when the case goes to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, since the PUC can add conditions to the permit.

The Minnesota Commerce Department has recommended several requirements be added. One is that the Big Stone utilities commit to building more wind energy. Another is that they find a way to offset the coal plant's carbon dioxide emissions, possibly by purchasing CO2 credits on the open market.