Appeals court: Big transmission line project may go forward

The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that a transmission line project in central and western Minnesota may go forward.

The CapX2020 project would build three 345-kV transmission lines across Minnesota that would connect to the Dakotas and Wisconsin. Eleven utilities, including Xcel Energy and Great River Energy, are building the 600 miles of lines to upgrade and expand the electric transmission grid.

Three groups -- the Citizens Energy Task Force, No CapX2020 and the United Citizens Action Network -- appealed a decision by the state Public Utilities Commission to grant certificates of need for the lines.

The groups argued that the lines weren't needed and that one of the lines along the Mississippi River would disturb migratory birds and other wildlife.

But the three-judge appeals panel said the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission followed state law in scrutinizing the project and making sure it is needed to meet future energy transmission demand.

"Although the relators (the groups challenging the commission's decision) have pointed to legitimate areas of environmental concern, after a review of the record, we are unable to conclude that the relators have shown that MPUC violated the law, acted beyond its authority, or made any arbitrary or capricious determination," the judges wrote.

PROJECT FACES SOME UNCERTAINTY

Despite the appeals court's ruling, one of the CapX2020 transmission lines has been delayed because of uncertainty surrounding how the building costs will be allocated.

The utilities building the lines recently asked the Public Utilities Commission to allow for a delay in the Brookings line, which will run from near Brookings, S.D., to Hampton, Minn., located south of the Twin Cities. Slated completion for that line is now 2015, which is more than a year later that the utilities had originally planned.

The reason for the delay is the uncertainty surrounding who will pay the project costs and how.

The PUC will decide Thursday whether to give itself more than the 45-day limit for approving the utilities' delay of the Brookings line. Specific route permits for the lines also need to be approved.

But the utilities said last month that they expect all three of the lines to be completed in 2015.

"We are moving ahead," said Terry Grove, transmission director with Great River Energy and co-executive director of CapX2020. "We're trying to do so very prudently and not put any customers at risk for additional costs."

Paula Maccabee, an attorney representing the Citizens Energy Task Force, said the group will continue to oppose the lines. While the appeals court decision was disappointing, she said there are other opportunities for concerned citizens to challenge the project.

Maccabee noted that a federal environmental review process is under way for the line running from Hampton to La Crosse, Wis., and the route permits for the three lines are not yet approved. She also said the delay in the Brookings line should lead state regulators to question the overall project.

"(It) demonstrates that there are certain underlying weaknesses in the vision that they put forth for these very large transmission projects," Maccabee said.

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