Residents divided over North Branch power plant project

Plans for a natural gas-fired power plant near North Branch, Minn. are dividing residents of Chisago County.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

A national power company that hopes to build Minnesota's fourth largest power plant near North Branch faces opposition from neighbors.

LS Power says the natural gas-fired plant will actually be good for the environment. Gas emits half the carbon dioxide of a coal-fired plant, and the company has made efforts to address local environmental concerns.

Neighbor Mark Koran is fighting the proposed plant. Although he's lit up his front yard with an old-fashioned Christmas display containing $20,000 in lights, he's no fan of generating power nearby.

"With the additional trucking, all the the building infrastructure, the smokestacks, the lighting, the noise, the vibrations that are generated by these things, doesn't fit our comprehensive plans for our rural countryside," Koran said.

Koran said when he moved to the area three years ago he reveled in the peace and quiet of the area, which is a cross between farmland and northern suburb.

He says if there's a power plant with exhaust stacks up to 17 stories high in his back yard, the atmosphere will change for the worse.

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Mark Koran
Power plant opponent Mark Koran says it would be practically in his back yard.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

The Sunrise River flows through here to the St. Croix, and Koran worries about possible pollution from the plant.

The chief attraction for the power plant is the proximity of two natural gas lines and an electric substation.

"Unfortunately, our Legislature gave them a significant tax break that makes this probably the absolute lowest cost place to build this," Koran said. "They handed it to them on a silver platter."

The tax break came in a bill passed last year that exempts the power plant from personal property taxes, if the company can negotiate an agreement with Chisago County and the local township.

Gene Olson, who has been a Lent Township supervisor for more than 30 years, backs the plant project.

Existing powerlines are part of the reason the company wants to build the proposed natural gas powerplant near North Branch.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

"There's no doubt how I feel about it, I'm looking for the economic benefit for the community," Olson said. "And our county is suffering."

Olson says the plant will generate income for the township when it's up and running. "I believe the township would get close to a half million dollars," Olson said.

Nearly half the township is off limits to development because it's part of the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area. Olson says property taxes and other payments from a power plant would be welcome.

Critics say the values of nearby homes would decline, wiping out any gains from the power plant.

The three township supervisors voted to approve the project, but they're bucking local opinion. At a special meeting, a straw poll showed heavy opposition.

Rob Kravitz
Power plant opponent Rob Kravitz is an environmental consultant with expertise in water quality issues.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

The bigger question for the entire state is whether the power is needed in Minnesota. Local utilities say there isn't a need for more power right now.

But LS Power insists there will be customers for its new electricity by the time the plant starts running in 2015.

"Because we're so close to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, it's actually going to be a very efficient addition to the grid," said Blake Wheatley, lead developer for the LS Power project.

Wheatley says Minnesota's ambitious plans for wind power mean the state needs backup for when the wind isn't blowing. Gas generators are ideal for that, he says.

Wheatley says the company is responding to local concerns by promising not to use precious groundwater for backup cooling. He says the plant will help the environment by using water from a local sewage treatment plant.

"It's going to prevent treated wastewater coming from the treatment plants from being discharged to the Sunrise River, which flows down to the St. Croix and Lake Pepin," Wheatley said.

Critics say using water from sewage treatment is an attractive idea, but they're not sure they trust LS Power to do it.

Rob Kravitz, an environmental consultant who lives nearby, is skeptical of LS Power's promises.

"My fear is they'll get this thing built with lots of promises, and then once it's built they'll look for an easier way to do things," Kravitz said.

It's unclear whether the substation and nearby power lines will be able to handle 725 megawatts of new electricity. Studies are underway.

Meanwhile, Chisago County has appointed a task force to study the proposal. Rob Kravitz is on the task force, and he says he'll keep fighting against it.