ST. PAUL - Utility regulators backed a controversial plan today to build large electric transmission lines in western Minnesota, but required certain conditions be met.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approved the project by Fergus Falls-based Otter Tail Power Company and four other utilities. The companies want improved transmission lines to distribute electricity generated by the planned Big Stone II coal-fired power plant in eastern South Dakota.
The five commissioners unanimously voted for the transmission plan, but included requirements meant to protect utility ratepayers from excessive costs and to lessen the environmental impact. Environmental groups and renewable energy proponents have opposed the Big Stone project.
The utilities' plan calls for construction of two large transmission lines. One would run from the proposed plant near Milbank, S.D., to Morris, passing through Ortonville. A second, larger line would span from the power plant to Granite Falls, traveling through Canby.
The commission only could decide the transmission portion of the project. It has no authority over whether the coal-fired plant can be built, but the utilities say the transmission lines are needed for the plant.
"I'm adequately convinced that the certificate of need is still justified for these lines," commission Chairman David Boyd said.
The entire Big Stone II project is estimated to cost $1.6 billion, with the transmission upgrades pegged at $225 million to $275 million.
An estimated 150 people packed into a hearing room for the commission's deliberations. Utility executives and supporters sat alongside Big Stone II opponents from groups such as the Sierra Club. Two activists wore furry animal costumes to demonstrate their environmental concerns.