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Ironically, death of Big Stone II hurts wind energy development

Some observations following the death of the Big Stone II coal-fired power plant project.

Big Stone II's fate was sealed recently when Otter Tail Power, of Fergus Falls pulled out of the $1.6 billion project partnership.

Otter Tail cited concerns about pending "cap and trade" legislation, which would require air polluters such as power plants to obtain permits and buy pollution allowances.

The rest of the project partners pulled out when no replacement for Otter Tail could be recruited to invest.

The municipal power utility in Detroit Lakes receives some of its energy from the existing Big Stone plant and would have benefited from the base power generated by Big Stone II.

But the deep recession that hit the nation last year has meant a deep drop in power usage.

It could be five or six years before energy consumption returns to its pre-recession levels, according to Detroit Lakes Utilities Superintendent Curt Punt.

That buys some time for power providers to figure out how best to proceed: The mostly likely scenario is natural gas-fired turbines, which can be installed relatively quickly, at least compared to the process of building a coal-fired plant.

The biggest risk to consumers is that, as the demand for natural gas rises and supplies remain the same, electricity costs will also increase.

That concerns us a lot.

Unfortunately, the death of Big Stone II means big problems for South Dakota's plans to host wind farms and send the power to Minnesota cities via Big Stone II 's transmission lines (the lines were going to be built with that in mind, and would have carried twice the capacity needed for the coal plant alone).

Recently, it was reported that the project partners asked the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to preserve the route for the transmission lines.

The request did not indicate who may be interested in the route, or what new power would be carried.

South Dakota is now left without a way to transmit large amounts of its potential wind power to places that need it.

According to our sister newspaper, the Mitchell, S.D. Daily Republic, the state is ranked No. 4 nationally in potential wind-energy capacity, but only No. 20 in actual capacity from existing wind turbines.

At a $1 million per mile projected cost for the Big Stone II transmission lines, neither wind developers nor consumers are willing to step into the investment vacuum.

It might take as long as a decade to replace the Big Stone II plan with another plan for large-scale wind-energy transmission.