The 345-kilovolt electrical transmission line coming to Brookings from Big Stone will feature pole structures between 140 and 170 feet tall – about 10 times taller than a single-family home. Xcel Energy photo
BROOKINGS – With three wind farms, an ethanol plant in Aurora and the new Deer Creek power plant north of Elkton, Brookings County is already the acknowledged energy capital of the state.
Now a partnership of regional energy companies has announced plans to bring a 345-kilovolt (kV) transmission line from Big Stone to Brookings, a project that some believe could restart the stalled wind energy boom in eastern South Dakota.
That’s if the politicians in Washington don’t let the wind energy production tax credit die this year.
But tax or no tax, the power transmission line is coming to Brookings County, and it will be available to energy producers, renewable and otherwise.
Xcel Energy and Otter Tail Power Company are the forces behind the project, and they’ll be detailing their plans to area residents in public meetings in Clear Lake June 12 and in White June 13.
The meetings are designed to answer questions about the purpose and the process as power company representatives begin meeting with area landowners.
The companies will be looking for easements for the final 30 miles of the transmission line’s route into Brookings. The exact map isn’t set yet, but it will cut through eastern South Dakota, southward into Brookings County, terminating near Elkton.
The transmission line is the power companies’ way of making lemonade out of lemons. It has long been on the drawing board, but the line was designed to carry electricity to the grid from the planned Big Stone II coal-fired power plant, a partnership of seven utility companies.
The plant was controversial from the outset, and opposition from environmental groups and the EPA’s withdrawal of its permit doomed the project. When several of the original utilities pulled out, lead partner Otter Tail announced it was abandoning the deal.
That left Otter Tail with an approved transmission line route from Big Stone City to Gary – the permits were secured in 2007 – and no electricity to put on the line.
The “lemonade” came in the form of Otter Tail’s decision to partner with Xcel to finish the line to the Brookings substation, an addition of about 30 miles. The line would be available for whatever wind energy generation eastern South Dakota can provide.
Although Brookings County is now producing wind energy from three separate operations – MinnDakota and Buffalo Ridge I and II – wind development in this part of the state has literally ground to a halt. Without more transmission lines to carry the energy the wind farms produce, there is little point in moving planned projects forward. Consequently, several have languished “in development.”
The fly in the ointment this time around could be politics: Congress has yet to vote on an extension of the renewable energy production tax credit. Now set to phase out at the end of the year, the credit provides wind facilities 2.2 cents per kilowatt hour for operations in service before Dec. 31, 2012.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) has voiced support for the subsidies, as has Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the man who authored the 1992 legislation that created the tax credit.
Democrats, however, have charged that Republicans are holding the wind tax credit hostage, using its passage as a bargaining chip for concessions on other tax credit extensions.
In any case, it’s likely that a vote to save the wind tax credit – and thus spur renewed interest in wind farm development – probably won’t happen until after the November election. It’ll be an 11th-hour cliffhanger.
The permitting process for transmission lines is notoriously lengthy, so Otter Tail and Excel will begin immediately on the route into Brookings County – regardless of what happens in Washington, D.C.
A utilities representative last week said the power line, once constructed, will be “available for anyone who has power generation,” and that specifically means electricity from wind turbines.
The Big Stone South – Brookings County line is one of 16 projects approved by the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operators in December 2011.
According to the energy companies’ literature, projects like the Big Stone-to-Brookings line “will help expand and enhance the region’s transmission system, reduce congestion, provide access to affordable energy sources (and) meet public policy requirements, including renewable energy mandates.”
The Otter Tail-Excel partnership – operated as part of the CapX2020 program – plans to file its facility permit for the 345 kV line in early 2013. If all goes well, work should commence in 2014, and power could be coursing through the line in 2017.
Tim Carlsgaard, communications manager for CapX2020, said it will take six to eight months to settle on the route and work with landowners: the company has identified 1,400 property owners in the region who could be involved in the easement process.
The transmission structure is described as a single-circuit line (but double-circuit capable) on steel towers some 140-170 feet tall. The right-of-way for the line will require 150 feet.
It’s likely any electricity carried on the line will be used to meet power demands in the Twin Cities, but plans are to add additional infrastructure that could take Dakota wind energy on to Lacrosse and then to Madison in Wisconsin.
Carlsgaard said the costs for the project have not yet been detailed. He said as many as 200 workers could be on the project at any one time but noted “these will be short-term jobs with long-term benefits.” As with all their projects, the utilities will use local contractors as much as possible.
The Big Stone-to-Brookings line is one of two 345 kV lines planned for the county. Carlsgaard said work began in April on a Brookings County to Hampton, Minn., transmission line. That line, also in the planning since 2007, will cover a route of approximately 240 miles from the Brookings substation to the Twin Cities area. It’s designed to improve reliability throughout southwest and west central Minnesota. With an online target date of 2015, it, too, is expected to be used by renewable energy operations.
CapX2020 companies include 11 transmission-owning utilities in Minnesota and the surrounding region, operating as a group to upgrade and expand the electrical transmission grid to ensure continued reliable service.
The CapX2020 projects include four 345 kV transmission lines and one 230 kV line. The projects will cost approximately $1 billion, the expenses allocated among the utilities’ customers.
CapX2020 representatives point out that the Upper Midwest's transmission grid hasn't had a major upgrade in nearly 30 years, while electricity consumption in Minnesota has nearly doubled since 1980 and Wisconsin has seen its energy use grow 2 percent annually during the past decade.
South Dakota's energy demand and use are projected to grow 1-2 percent annually during the next 10-15 years. And in North Dakota, electricity consumption increased 3 percent annually from 1980 to 2005.
Contact Ken Curley at kcurley@-brookingsregister.com.