Next hurdle for Big Stone II: convincing MN Public Utilities Commission project is necessary


Following withdrawal Monday of two participants, the proposed Big Stone II coal-fired power plant confronts an even more difficult task: convincing the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission that the new plant is necessary.

A hearing on the plant’s certificate of need, required before transmission lines can be run from the plant across Minnesota, is scheduled for Oct. 4. Environmental opponents of the plant believe that withdrawal of the two Minnesota partners — Great River Energy and the Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency — will make it even more difficult for proponents to justify the plant to Minnesota regulators.

The controversial proposed Big Stone II power project suffered a setback on Monday when two of the utilities backing the $1.6 billion project pulled out, leaving it up to the remaining partners how to make up many millions of dollars if the project is to proceed.

The $1.6 billion coal-fired project is proposed to be built near Milbank, South Dakota, on the banks of the Big Stone Lake, near the border between Minnesota and South Dakota. The majority of the electricity produced, if the project goes forward, would be sold and consumed in Minnesota.

The remaining five utility companies promoting the Big Stone power plant are Otter Tail Power Company, Montana-Dakota Utilities Company, Missouri River Energy Services, Central Minnesota Municipal Power Association and Heartland Consumers Power District.

Although the plant would be located in South Dakota, it is a concern to Minnesotans because of estimates that the plant would release 4.7 million tons of carbon dioxide–a greenhouse gas–into the air every year for decades.

South Dakota’s Public Utilities Commission approved the project last year, despite strong opposition. The Izaak Walton League, Fresh Energy, Wind on the Wires, and the Union of Concerned Scientists joined in the coalition opposing the power plant, with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy taking the lead.

The next hurdle for the project is winning the approval of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission for a certificate of need, which is required before project proponents can proceed to build two power lines to bring the electricity from the power plant into Minnesota.

Dan Sharp, spokesman for the project, said it is likely that they will seek a postponement of the Oct. 4 PUC hearing in order to regroup after the two partners backed out, as well as to make any necessary revisions to the project proposal.

Chuck Laszewski of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy says that in addition to the carbon dioxide emissions, concerns also exist about whether the utility companies’ proposal meets the standards of Minnesota state law.

In its 2007 session, the Minnesota legislature passed environmental laws to promote renewable energy, energy efficiency and conservation and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Sharp said that his group included a wind energy component in its application; Laszewski maintained that the amount of wind energy the project would include would be minimal.

Sharp’s position is that the plant is “still the best cost alternative for consumers and it’s certainly needed in this region, so we’re going forward.”

Laszewski’s group strongly disagrees: “We just don’t need this big coal-fired power plant. We say–and we have a lot of evidence to back us up–that the alternatives of wind energy, of which we have a lot and are developing even more, and energy efficiency investments would take care of whatever need they have.”

When asked what his group intends to do now that two partner utilities have backed out, Sharp answered, “Probably what will happen is either we’ll downsize the plant or we’ll keep the plant at its current proposed size, but the current remaining partners will take a bigger share.”

Whichever option the utilities pursue, Laszewski said that, “They will make their pitch and we will make ours. Our pitch will continue to be as it has been: this is unnecessary, we don’t need this plant. It’s a terribly polluting plant. It’s going in the wrong direction and we think you guys should just get rid of the idea and go with wind energy and energy efficiency.”