The proposed Big Stone II power plant suffered a major setback Friday when two administrative law judges recommended against allowing transmission lines from the plant to be built across west-central Minnesota.
If the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission accepts that recommendation, the project could be doomed, said Dan Sharp, a spokesman for the five utilities that are seeking to build the plant.
"The transmission lines are critical and unless we can build the transmission lines in Minnesota, the project can't go," Sharp said.
The administrative law judges held that the five utilities had failed to show that demand for electricity couldn't be better and more cost-effectively met with renewable energy and greater energy efficiency. And they also wrote that the utilities had not adequately considered the impact the coal-fired plant would have on global warming.
The utilities want to build the plant next to an existing plant near Milbank in eastern South Dakota, a few miles west of Ortonville, Minn. It would serve 1 million people, about half of them on the western plains of Minnesota. The power lines in question would run to Granite Falls and Willmar.
A coalition of environmental groups that oppose the plant welcomed Friday's recommendation.
Michael Noble, executive director of Fresh Energy, said he expects the PUC will follow the judges' advice.
"It would be almost impossible now for the state Public Utilities Commission to approve this new coal plant," Noble said. "There's been years and years of testimony and thousands of pages of evidence, and all of it gets summed up by saying that energy efficiency and renewable energy are better for consumers."
Sharp said the utilities will now make the same arguments to the PUC that it did to the judges: that the plant would go a long way toward addressing the region's growing need for power, and that Big Stone II is the lowest-cost option. All the alternatives would cost consumers more, he said.
"It's going to show up in their electric bill just like they're facing at the gas pump," he said.
Sharp pointed out that the PUC is not bound by the judges' recommendation. He said he expects the PUC will hold hearings in early to mid-June and deliberate what to do by the end of June.
South Dakota officials have already approved major permits for the $1.5 billion plant.
The five utilities backing the plant are Otter Tail Power Co., the Central Minnesota Municipal Power Agency, Heartland Consumers Power District, Missouri River Energy Services, and Montana-Dakota Utilities Co.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)