Despite setback, Big Stone II still slated for 2010 construction


Despite a metro-area city backing out of the project, representatives for the proposed Big Stone II power-generation facility say they remain optimistic about the plant’s future, while opponents are still insistent that the new plant will mean dirty power for the Dakotas and Minnesota.

The proposed coal-fired plant, to be located in northeast South Dakota, would generate between 500 and 580 megawatts of electricity. Five utilities are backing the project, including western Minnesota’s Otter Tail Power and the Central Minnesota Power Agency out of Blue Earth. The project is called Big Stone II because it is a major expansion of an existing facility of the same name in Milbank, S.D.

The municipal utility for Elk River, a western suburb of Minneapolis, has declined participation in the project, citing that taking part could carry considerable risk. “We have to commit a lot of money to something that’s not built,” said city utility board chair John Dietz. “They were asking us to commit $3.4 million by September for our share of the research-and-development costs. They’re going to have a go/no-go vote in September of this year, and next year we would be required to put up more money for construction.”

Dietz said that the ratepayers for the utility would be on the hook if the plant didn’t happen.

Elk River’s decision was the target of Twin Cities area activists who urged supporters to call Elk River officials asking them to turn down the project. At the recent meeting of the Elk River city council and utilities board, council members expressed no dissatisfaction with using coal-generated power, but questioned the price tag the utility would have to commit to the project. The utilities board had previously voted not to recommend the project, and the city council took no action, effectively killing Elk River’s participation.

A spokesman for the Big Stone II, Dan Sharp, said the project can continue without Elk River’s participation. “We could increase the scope of the project to 580 or 600 megawatts, if others were willing to come into the project,” he said. With the number of utilities that are on board, the project will probably be 500 megawatts.

Sharp said that all of the project’s partners are trying to secure their shares of the financing in anticipation of a September meeting of the partners, adding that construction is still slated for 2010, possibly starting as early as May.

Sharp says one factor that could be a benefit to this project would be if so-called cap-and-trade legislation becomes a reality. Then, Big Stone II would be about 20 percent more efficient than the existing facilities and would be in line to receive credits that could be traded on the open market.

But, critics of the project contend the project will generate dangerous and antiquated coal-based power when other alternatives are becoming more viable in the region. The Northstar chapter of the Sierra Club, which counts Minnesotans in its numbers, has been active in opposing the expansion project. Northstar member Rich Felming said the project is largely past the point of any significant public input. He found it encouraging that Elk River declined to participate.

”We’re always trying to get letters to the editor in to make people aware of the hazards of this proposal,” Felming said.

In addition to his concern that the plant will create several million tons more of carbon dioxide emissions that could contribute to global warming, Felming has a more personal stake in the project: “I run a part-time business where I make fishing products, and I’m concerned about mercury emissions, the sulphur dioxides and the nitrogen dioxides are an issue also for me.”

Felming said he’s very concerned of the impact of this plant on sport fishing. The plant will withdraw cooling water from Big Stone Lake, which is co-managed by Minnesota and South Dakota authorities.

He said he also finds it odd that these utilities are overlooking a prime source of energy. The Dakotas are “the Saudi Arabia of wind power,” Felming said.

But in examining why utilities still seem wedded to coal-generated power, Felming said. “You want to do something you’re familiar with, you always want to keep going down that path.”

Felming added that groups like the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action in South Dakota will try to keep the public focused on what they say is a continued and dangerous reliance on coal for power.

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