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Loss of Big Stone II would be bad news for Minnesota

In the end, the recession and banking crisis has done what four years of environmental battles could not -- bring the $1.6 billion Big Stone II project to its knees.

After investing $13 million in engineering, legal fees and associated expenses towards the 580-megawatt coal-fired power plant planned for Milbank. S.D., the lead developer -- Otter Tail Power Co. -- decided it could not afford the financing on its $400 million share of the final cost, and has withdrawn from the project.

Why should anybody around here care?

Detroit Lakes will be getting its power from the plant, if it is ever built. The remaining four partners in the consortium are looking for utilities to step in and take the place of Otter Tail Power. If there are no takers in 60 days, the project is dead.

Environmentalists may well rejoice at the plant's death, since it would have produced 4 million tons of global warming-producing carbon dioxide per year.

But it could be bad news for the state, and this area in particular, if the economy rebounds and local power providers end up in a few years having to buy expensive power on the open market.

It's also bad news for Minnesota in that the state badly needs the carrying capacity of the big transmission lines that are part of the Big Stone II project.

The transmission lines are big enough to handle the 580 megawatts of power produced by the plant, with another 1,000 megawatts of carrying capacity left over.

Some of that extra capacity would be taken up by dozens of wind projects planned for the Buffalo Ridge and other areas of Minnesota and South Dakota. The status of those new projects is now in doubt.

What is not in doubt is that Minnesota sorely needs new transmission lines.

"We are using our transmission near its capacity, with little room for more projects without building more transmission," William Glahn, director of the Minnesota Office of Energy Security, said in a newly issued report.

Since it takes years to permit and build new transmission lines, this should be great cause for concern.

If Minnesota isn't careful, it's going to turn into a state with expensive energy and few jobs.