Big Stone II project faces increasing scrutiny

Opponents of the controversial Big Stone II power-plant expansion are stepping up pressure in their three-year attempt to shoot down plans for the coal-fired electric generator just across the Minnesota border near Milbank, S.D.

It all comes as decision time closes in on the $1.5 billion project. This week an administrative law judge is expected to lay out findings as a prelude to a ruling on a “certificate of need” for transmission lines to carry half of the some 600 megawatts of capacity from the plant to destinations in southwestern Minnesota.

A final ruling by the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) could come as early as July. Big Stone II spokesman Dan Sharp acknowledged that an unfavorable decision would likely doom the plant.

Last week, noted climate scientist James E. Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York appealed in a letter that Gov. Tim Pawlenty publicly oppose the Big Stone II plant expansion.

“You can help inspire your state and the rest of the country to take the bold actions that are essential if we are to retain a hospitable climate,” Hansen wrote, parroting Pawlenty’s own words in speeches he’s made across the country calling on states to initiate “bold initiatives” to blunt unwanted effects of climate change.

Gave early warnings
Hansen became nationally known for his 1980s congressional testimony that blamed carbon emissions from sources like coal-fired power plants for promoting climate change — whose effects are increasingly documented by a broad array of scientists worldwide.

Hansen’s position has been largely endorsed by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but not by the Bush administration — which, Hansen has charged, has attempted to silence him and other climate scientists.

In January, the Minnesota Department of Commerce questioned the need for the transmission lines that, Sharp said, would amount to upgrading 100 miles of existing line and building 10 miles of new line.

Also last week, it was learned that eight Minnesota legislators have written to Microsoft’s Bill Gates, noting that he holds a 9 percent stake in Otter Tail Corp. of Fergus Falls, Minn., one of five utilities involved in the Big Stone II project. Led by Rep. Jean Wagenius of Minneapolis and Sen. Ellen Anderson of St. Paul, the DFL legislators invited Gates to visit Minnesota to review green investment opportunities that would “align the values of your foundation with your investment strategy.”

Wagenius’s office said that Gates has promised to respond. 

Earlier, the advocacy group American Rivers of Washington, D.C., designated the Minnesota River as one of five national “endangered” rivers, mainly because of mercury pollution from the plant and drawdown of water from Big Stone Lake, which is the river’s headwaters.

Sharp countered that state-of-the-art mercury controls would limit emissions and that the company has already agreed to limit lake drawdown to a level approved for the existing plant, switching to groundwater for supplies in the event that level is exceeded. South Dakota has approved the use of groundwater, Sharp said.

Focus is on carbon emissions
But the eye of the controversy is focused on upwards of 4.7 million tons of carbon that the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) said would be generated by the Big Stone II project and would be contrary to the carbon-reduction objectives of a compact of six Midwest governors formed at the behest of Republican Pawlenty and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat. Plans for a regional carbon policy are expected in the fall.

In his letter Hansen said, “There is no such thing as ‘clean coal.’ ” He  called for energy conservation coupled with alternative sources like wind power. Minnesota’s Next Generational Energy Act, passed by a broad, bipartisan legislative majority and signed by Pawlenty last year, directs that utilities generate at least 25 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2025.

As controversy swirls around transmission lines for Big Stone II, another transmission-line issue is emerging: A way must be found to carry electricity from thousands of wind generators sprouting in some of the same areas where Big Stone II’s lines would be upgraded or built. 

All across the Buffalo Ridge area, which runs diagonally across southwestern Minnesota, workers are installing giant windmill towers that soon will churn out some 6,000 megawatts of electrical capacity (more than six times the capacity of the Big Stone II plant). But there currently is not enough transmission capability to carry all that power to where it’s needed. And a transmission line (or lines) would have to go through the same PUC certificate-of-need process as the Big Stone plant.

The difference, said MCEA’s Chuck Laszewski, is that Minnesota law calls for reducing carbon emissions while at the same time calling for increased power from renewable sources like wind.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by sean mckenna on 04/30/2008 - 01:39 pm.

    As someone who formerly held property on Big Stone Lake, I can tell you that Big Stone Lake became far more clean after the opening of the Big Stone-I power plant in the mid 1970’s. The region is starving for affordable energy, just build the damn plant.

  2. Submitted by Alan Muller on 05/04/2008 - 10:39 pm.

    I think this is a valuable story.

    It is a confusing situation, with promoters of new power lines claiming that they are “for wind” when the underlying facts often seem to suggest they are actually for new coal plants.

    It seems a no-brainer that Big Stone II should NOT be built for a whole host of reasons.

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