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Across The Lake

The legislature is back at work and once again we're reminded of the old quotation that's been attributed to judges, legislators, editorial writers and most probably to that oft-quoted authority on everything, "Anonymous." Whoever first wrote it, it's well to keep in mind that "No man's life, property or liberty is safe while the legislature is in session."

A little note of qualification here. For the past several years, there have been only occasional comments about electricity in these columns. That's been the case in view of my concern about what's written here not be mistaken as pleading the cause of the power industry or the cooperative movement or, most specifically, of Beltrami Electric -- the co-op that serves this and parts of surrounding counties. I've been a member of BEC's board of directors since 2002, ending on Friday of this week. With that information in mind, back to business.

Will the Minnesota legislators reduce your light bill? That might seem like an odd question but past legislatures have definitely increased the cost, especially for customers in this area who depend on power generated from North Dakota coal. Dominated by members from the metropolitan areas of the state who outnumbered those from rural parts, they pushed through changes we're paying for now.

One change was the requirement for a more renewable power supply, which led to the expansive and expensive, wind farms. The U. S. Bureau of Land Management was told to use "fast track" permitting for putting more windmills on public lands. Then the Fish & Wildlife Service put an end to that by invoking a decades-old law for protecting eagles. As a result, billions of dollars in wind power development has been stalled while the two agencies seek a compromise agreement.

Minnesota's legislature got into all this with the adoption of a law requiring the use of wind-generated electricity percentages of a set amount by a certain date. Seeking to be sure of meeting that rule, Beltrami Electric's power supplier signed agreements for obtaining wind power from the developer of a major wind farm in North Dakota. It's part of the electricity we're all paying for now. It's not cheap, but it means we're meeting the Minnesota law now and for years to come.

As the pitchman on TV would say, "Wait -- there's more." And there is. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is now looking at the water tower cooling units at power plants. Rules will come out in March, with retrofits affecting the 400 or so coal-fired or nuclear power plants at a cost that could well run into hundreds of millions of dollars. Up goes that bill, again.

Not all the news is bleak, of course. OSHA -- the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is working with a state college in North Dakota in a partnership that will focus on training workers in the wind power industry. In another part of North Dakota, landowners have signed agreements covering 20,000 of the 80,000 acres needed for storage thousands of feet below ground of carbon dioxide from power plant emissions.

Turning coal directly into gasoline is another North Dakota project, though currently on hold but the state has a $10 million commitment to study the project which would entail a $4 billion plant producing 460 million gallons of gasoline annually. It's one more attempt to build an economy based on creating jobs in the energy field, in a state where oil production already ranks the state third in the nation. And, incidentally, where instead of a $6.2 billion deficit, as Minnesota's legislature faces, the legislators there start their year with a, to us, massive surplus.

Thoughts while drying the dishes... If all this is of minimum interest, it has offered a chance to pass on some idea of the range of material on which board members are often expected to be an authority. It doesn't begin to cover more immediate things like clearing right-of-way or line extension costs and most especially, the setting of rates. On a personal note, it was not only a pleasure but an honor to serve the 17,000 Beltrami Electric members.