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Demand forces need for new power lines

Strong development growth in the Bemidji area, which adds to electric demand, could cause brownouts unless a new transmission line serves the area, utility officials say.

Bemidji "as a regional center will consume additional electricity and more transmission capacity is needed to ensure a stable supply in the future," Al Koeckeritz, Otter Tail Power Co. manager of delivery project development, said Tuesday.

Otter Tail, along with Minnesota Power and Minnkota Power Cooperative, are proposing to build a 230,000-volt high-voltage transmission line from Bemidji to Cohasset, west of Grand Rapids.

The new line would connect the west, from Bemidji's Wilton substation, to Minnesota Power's Boswell Energy Center in Cohasset, providing the Bemidji area with a second source of power, Koeckeritz told Beltrami County commissioners.

"It's really a reliability project, not an additional generation supply," he said. "We have to be able to supply power if the (Wilton) transmission line goes down."

Electrical supply systems are built with redundancy, allowing the power to surge around problem areas in the transmission circuit and avoiding brownouts or even blackouts -- total power loss.

High voltage lines now run from Grand Forks to Winger and then Bemidji. Also, others run from Fargo to Winger, and from Fargo to Audubon to Badoura to Riverton, then north to Grand Rapids.

The proposed line would connect a loop from Bemidji to Grand Rapids, changing Bemidji as a dead-end site for high-voltage transmission and connecting two 230-kV substations.

"Bemidji's connectivity with the regional electric transmission grid is inadequate," he said, "and brownouts and blackouts are possible."

The Bemidji area now is susceptible to low voltage during winter peak load conditions, should the only other 230-kV line to the area, the Winger-Wilton line, is out of service. The new peaking power plant at Solway helps, he said, but doesn't supply a stable base load over a long period of time.

While average growth in the Otter Tail service area is 1 to1.5 percent a year, it's 2.5 to 3 percent a year in the Bemidji area, Koeckeritz said. "As demand for electric power increases, the greater the adverse effect of any planned or unplanned transmission line outage."

The project is one of several that is being pursued by an alliance of Minnesota utilities which are making long-range plans known as CapX 2020. It's goal is to build a new transmission infrastructure to maintain reliability of the transmission system throughout the region.

"Minnesota and the surrounding region need more transmission capacity to ensure a reliable and affordable supply of electricity to support growing customer demand and economic growth," Koeckeritz said.

CapX 2020 has three project groups, with Group I calling for four new high voltage transmission lines to be able to deliver electricity between 2012 and 2014 -- a 345-kV line between the Twin Cities and Rochester/LaCrosse, Wis., the 230-kV line from Bemidji to Grand Rapids, a 345-kV line from Fargo to St. Cloud/Monticello, and a 345-kV line from Brookings, S.D., to the Twin Cities.

The four lines would work together for regional reliability and enable 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy, he said.

"The Bemidji-Grand Rapids project is considered by the state of Minnesota to be the highest priority of all CapX 2020 transmission projects," he said.

"The Winger to Bemidji line would be critical if lost," he said. "A line to Grand Rapids would be a strong source for the area as the line provides redundancy for the area."

Actual power to the area is generated at a Manitoba hydroelectric power plant or in coal-fired plants in the Dakotas, he said. Otter Tail is increasing electric generation through wind energy, he said, but there is no technology currently that can store wind energy to provide a base load for times of need, such as the loss of a transmission line.

While a proposed route for the transmission line is still months away, Koeckeritz said it would generally follow U.S. Highway 2, either directly along the highway or to the south along a parallel right of way used by Great Lakes Gas Transmission Co.

When County Board Chairman Jim Heltzer asked if the line would be underground, Jim Metcalf of Otter Tail Power in Bemidji said the line would be above ground, along "H" poles. Two wires at the top of the "H" would serve as protection while three lower wires carry the power.

"An underground line costs considerably more -- 10 times," Metcalf said, adding that the above-ground line is about $700,000 a mile to install. "Going above ground also causes minimal damage to the environment."

"Bemidji in the dark literally is not something we want visited on the public," said Commissioner Joe Vene.

The project isn't a given, however, Koeckeritz said, noting that there are many challenges and government hoops to go through.

Utility officials are now meeting with local jurisdictions, which not only include Beltrami and other counties and cities along the way, but also the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Chippewa National Forest, state Commerce Department and the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, which will make the final decision.

"The proposed line would cross over 20 miles of federally owned land within the U.S. Forest Service's Chippewa Nation Forest," Koeckeritz said. "The line would also traverse the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, so it must satisfy the regulatory requirements of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe."

And, Leech Lake and Lake Winnibigoshish providing unique routing challenges, he said.

The timetable calls for meeting with officials and holding information meetings this summer and fall, and by the end of the year filing an application for the project with the MPUC. The agency will be asked to issue a certificate of need and a route permit.

In 2008, public information meetings will be held in preparation for doing an environmental impact statement. Once a draft EIS is prepared, formal public hearings will be held.

"It will be a challenge," Koeckeritz said of the process ahead. "We all know that in bringing a 230-kV line through your backyard won't be welcome."

"It does seem to be the least invasive way to provide electricity redundancy," said Commissioner Jack Frost.