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PUC decision delayed on Big Stone power plant

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Big Stone Power plant
The Big Stone Two addition to the coal-fired plant is designed to send nearly half of its power from South Dakota to Minnesota. The current estimated cost is a $1.5 billion for the power plant and power lines and the utilities that want to build the plant predict the project will cost six percent more each year it's delayed.
MPR file photo

The utilities that want to build the plant started plodding through the regulatory process four years ago.  They hoped to get a thumbs-up today on the power lines, which they say are necessary for the plant to be financially feasible.  

But the newest member of the five-member Public Utilities Commission said he didn't have enough information to make a decision.  

J. Dennis O'Brien, an attorney, has only been on the board since February.  He said he's pretty sure the project will end up in court, and he wants the administrative record to be water-tight.  

O'Brien said he's frustrated with the models used to predict future costs -- costs of building the plant, costs for natural gas as an alternative fuel, and costs of carbon emissions, which the state or federal government is expected to start imposing soon.

"We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that we have powerful computers, but they're all driven by assumptions, which drive the answers," O'Brien said.  "I'd like to know, and have an expert tell us, 'What are carbon costs? What are reasonable construction costs? What is natural gas cost likely to be?  I recognize that this requires delay, but so be it."

One problem with that delay is that the commission chair, Leroy Koppenendrayer, is about to retire.  

So what if a member even newer than O'Brien has to decide?

Koppendrayer expressed frustration with the delay.

"If you want to be energy-independent, if you want to make sense at all, you don't say no to the largest resource you have," Koppendrayer said.  "The largest energy resource we have is coal.  What you do is you go sensibly forward and you use the resource you have with the best technology available to you to keep the lights on."

But only one other commissioner was ready to agree with Koppendrayer.

The utilities said they were okay with the delay.  They're involved with other regulatory processes in South and North Dakota anyway.  

Attorney Todd Guererro said commissioners have gotten sidetracked by an issue that goes  beyond the scope of their regulatory responsibilities in this case and that issue is global warming.

"We think that issues of global warming are legitimate for people to consider; we don't think the Commission's obligation in this case is to solve the question of global warming," Guerrero said.  "We don't think that that's necessarily going to happen in any decision on this case."

The utilities predict the power plant will cost six percent more each year it's delayed.  The current estimated cost is a $1.5 dollars for the power plant and power lines.

Critics of the project say the commissioners are right to consider the issue of global warming.  They say it's central to the case.

Jannette Brimmer represents several environmental groups that are fighting the project.   

She says the utilities didn't include realistic costs for carbon emissions from the coal-fired plant.  And she says it's the ratepayers who would pay for that mistake. 

"We all end up paying some of the costs of generating that electricity," she said. "If those costs were not properly analyzed to begin with, then we're the ones bearing those risks that they're going to go up very quickly, and we're asked to pay for a plant that wasn't a good idea."

Participants in the case would like a decision by September.  But there are lots of other matters on the commission's schedule already, and it's unclear when Gov. Pawlenty might name a new member.