When plans to build North Dakota's largest transmission line in three decades were unveiled, it seemed as though the political, legal and economic stars were in alignment. Minnesota's legislators wanted more renewable power, North Dakota farmers looked forward to the extra income, and environmental groups championed the line for carrying "green power" and cutting reliance on coal.
A 345-kilowatt, 270-mile-long transmission line in North Dakota has been in the planning stages since 2009. Minnkota Power Cooperative, the energy co-op behind it, released four potential routes to the public this past December. Because the study areas included private land, much of which is owned by farmers, it was felt there might be some objections.
Often referred to as the "Saudi Arabia of wind," North Dakota has a big stake in the nation's wind power development. So do the farmers and landowners whose property the turbines go on. Some are getting easement payments that add up to $10,000 a year, explained Chad Weckerly, a grain, wheat, corn and soybean farmer, and many of those payments increase 2 percent each year.
So far, though, backers of the proposed trans-Dakota line have been on a learning curve, running into a snarl of reasons showing that very little is easy about being green.
In the past few months, Weckerly has held four meetings across the state for landowners to voice their concerns. One of Weckerly's main issues is a loss of wind rights. He said the transmission line would take up too much space to allow landowners to lease their property to wind developers in the future.
"Generally, one wind turbine to another turbine is a 2,000-foot distance," said Weckerly, who sits on the board of the North Dakota Farm Bureau. "So if you're the lucky landowner that gets the transmission line on your property, it's not possible to get wind turbines on your land."
One-time payments are not enough
Minnkota has offered some landowners a one-time payment of $37,000 a mile for the new transmission line, Weckerly said. But the key here is one time. "The landowners are very much feeling that they should have annual payments," he said.
It's not that Weckerly or the state Farm Bureau oppose the project.
"We're not going to stand in the way of projects like this," said Jeff Missling, the organization's state executive director. "The biggest thing is making sure our landowners receive just compensations."
The $280 million transmission line, which will start outside of Center, N.D., and run east to Grand Forks, crosses 12 counties and is meant to replace an existing line that extends to Duluth, Minn., near Lake Superior.
That existing line, which transmits power from a coal-fired power plant in central North Dakota, is being sold to electricity provider Minnesota Power. Right now, Minnesota and North Dakota split the coal-generated energy from the Milton R. Young power station's Unit 2, located near Center, N.D., otherwise known as Young 2, with each state getting half.
Minnesota Power wants to add the existing transmission line with North Dakota wind power to its transmission system in order to meet Minnesota's renewable portfolio standard. The state mandates that 25 percent of Minnesota's energy be renewable by 2025.
The new Minnkota transmission line seeks to phase out all of Minnesota's dependence on the coal-fired Young 2 plant by 2024.
But another factor prompting the new line is North Dakota's increasing energy demand. In 2009, Minnkota forecast that its load will increase by nearly 2 percent every year for the next 25 years. This demand would otherwise prompt construction of a new coal-fired plant, Minnkota contends, but the new transmission line makes this unnecessary.
The current line shared by Minnkota and Minnesota Power carries an alternating current, meaning all of the power has to travel the path of least resistance. Since the power is generated in North Dakota, all of it follows a path to Minnesota. The new line would have a direct current, meaning the flow of power can be controlled at any time. This new advantage, coupled with North Dakota's eventually receiving all of the Young 2 coal power, is what makes a new coal plant unneeded.