Tribune editorial: Global warming bill would gut state's utilities

Longtime Detroit Lakes Utilities Superintendent Curt Punt says he's worried about Minnesota trying to solve the global warming problem all by itself.

Longtime Detroit Lakes Utilities Superintendent Curt Punt says he's worried about Minnesota trying to solve the global warming problem all by itself.

He's not too concerned about legislation requiring utilities to provide 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020 and 25 percent by 2025.

"That's OK. It's going to cost our ratepayers, but as utilities, we thought it was a good thing," he said.

Most of the renewable energy will come from wind turbines.

"People think wind is free power," he said. "What we can't seem to get across to people is that you only get 38 percent capacity from a wind turbine ... Unless, of course, people only want power 38 percent of the time," Punt says. "The cost of wind comes from backup power costs."


Back-up energy sources are either bought on the open market, which is expensive, or generated by natural gas-powered plants, such as those owned by Missouri River Energy Services, which is also expensive but won't much impact rates here for 15 or 20 years.

More problematic for Punt is a requirement that utilities implement enough conservation programs to save 1.5 percent of their energy output. In the case of Detroit Lakes, which produces 170 million kilowatt hours each year, "that's tough," Punt says. "We have to show we cut 2.5 million kilowatt hours, and that costs money, that's expensive to do."

But what really keeps Punt awake at night is a bill now working its way through the Legislature -- the Global Warming Mitigation Act -- that he says will prohibit all new coal-fired generation in Minnesota, and would prohibit utilities purchasing fossil fuel-generated power from other states.

"Right now our state is looking at a power deficit anyhow," Punt says. "By 2010 or 2012 we'll be in critical need of baseline power."

If the global warming bill is passed, "it's going to cripple Minnesota in terms of energy needs -- no one is going to build more plants or major transmission lines."

Missouri River Energy Services has been trying to build a new coal-burning power plant and upgrade an old one -- the Big Stone plants -- just across the South Dakota line.

If that project is killed -- and opponents are going great guns to kill it -- that will also eliminate a major transmission line that will bring needed power to western Minnesota.

Ironically, that transmission line is the only way to tap into the growing wind farms of southern Minnesota, which Punt says now produce more power than can be used in that area, but don't have a way to move that excess power to where it is needed.


So if the law is changed, where would Detroit Lakes and other utilities in west-central Minnesota get their power?

On the open market, of course, through MISO, the Midwest Independent System Operator, which runs the electrical grid in a multi-state region of the U.S.

That has Punt grinding his teeth. In effect, he says, that means some dirty-burning coal plant in Kansas, now operating at half-capacity, will rev up to full capacity, sending it here through MISO, at a much higher cost to Detroit Lakes residents.

So instead of state-of-the-art clean-burning coal plants at Big Stone providing cheap power, Detroit Lakes will pay much more on the open market for dirty power. And that won't help global warming or local rates.

"This is critical stuff," Punt says. "People should know we will become one of the most costly energy markets in the country."

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