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Punt: Look out for high rates if Big Stone II fails

Energy consumers in Detroit Lakes and across north central Minnesota should prepare to pay higher rates, regardless of whether the Big Stone II power plant is eventually built.

But energy costs will be a lot higher in a few years -- to the point where industry will start fleeing the state -- if opponents successfully kill coal power in Minnesota, according to Detroit Lakes Utilities Superintendent Curt Punt.

"We won't see the brunt of this until the 2015-2020 period,' he said. "Then it will really hit hard."

Punt attended two days of hearings held by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission last week, and left feeling very glum about the future of reliable energy in the state.

The State Utilities Commission voted 3-2 Thursday to further study the proposed power lines and the controversial South Dakota coal plant that would generate the electricity.

Instead, they are seeking expert opinion on the proposed lines and related Big Stone II coal-fired power plant.

Commissioners only are considering whether to grant a request by five utilities led by Fergus Falls-based Otter Tail Power Company to build transmission lines from the proposed plant in eastern South Dakota to Morris and Granite Falls in western Minnesota.

Detroit Lakes plans to get electricity from Big Stone II through Missouri River Energy.

Municipal utilities need reliable baseline power on the grid, and that can only come from coal, natural gas or nuclear power plants, Punt said.

Wind power is a great supplement, he said, but can't provide reliable baseline power because the wind doesn't always blow.

Environmentalists who oppose Big Stone II say it will produce enough carbon dioxide to equal 500,000 new cars on the road.

"We've been working for years to show the costs of coal," said Clean Water Action's lead organizer opposing the new coal plant, MaryJo Stueve. "This is dirty power that causes mercury contamination in our fish, asthma in our kids and diverts us from the Midwest's real strength -- clean, renewable energy sources like wind. If we let them build Big Stone II it would be like adding a half million more cars in terms of global warming pollution. That's clearly going in the wrong direction,"

Opponents either don't understand or don't care that wind and other alternative energy sources can't provide the reliable baseline energy that utilities need to "keep the lights on 24-7," Punt said.

Nuclear power is expensive, and likely to meet opposition of its own.

If coal plants can no longer be built, that leaves natural gas power plants, and the cost of natural gas has already doubled the past few years, Punt said.

If more power plants eat up the supply, homeowners who rely on natural gas will be priced out of the market, he added. "You take coal out of the mix and gas will go sky-high," he said.

Punt is frustrated because he believes the three of five State Utility Commission members who voted to delay Big Stone II don't understand the electrical power system as well as they should.

"All the three of them could talk about was the Big Stone II project and how it shouldn't be built -- we are going to show our arrogant control over neighboring states."

South Dakota has approved the project, and the Minnesota Utilities Commission is technically only supposed to decide if the transmission lines should be upgraded from South Dakota into Minnesota. The evidence clearly shows they should -- in no small part because wind power projects from South Dakota on down the line could tie into the upgraded transmission lines, Punt said.

"I'm really afraid Minnesota is going to go through really tough times," Punt said. "The right way to do it through the transition years is to still burn some coal ... if we want to compete with China and India, we need baseline power or we won't be able to compete anymore."

With much higher energy costs in Minnesota, industry is going to start leaving the state for less expensive states, Punt said.

"The thing we had going for us was great labor and low energy costs," he said. "Minnesota will see an out-migration of industry like California to states that have more sensible policies."