Power to the people - KTTC Rochester, Austin, Mason City News, Weather and Sports

By Fanna Haile-Selassie

Power to the people

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Le Roy, MN (KTTC-DT) --Wind power is giving us electricity for our homes right now with hundreds of modern wind turbines dotting the land in southeastern Minnesota and northern Iowa.

But in ten years, those hundreds of wind machines will grow into thousands. There's one troubling problem for the state's booming wind industry--how to get the power to the people.

You need transmission lines, high-voltage power lines. The ones we have now, aren't in the right places. So that means they'll need to build new ones. But some people are coming forward to say "not so fast, there are other ways to do this."

They stretch across the landscape, through farms and fields. High-voltage power lines are what connect the grid, keeping our country's lights turned on. They are a necessary evil. Usually, land is seized through eminent domain to put them up. As cities like Rochester continue to grow and new types of energy are produced, utility companies need more ways to transport the energy.

"We don't have transmission lines that necessarily link the high wind power areas to where the electricity demand is, where we have high population centers," explains Jeff Broberg, Vice President of Environmental Services, Inc.

On this map, the red and orange colors show great wind potential. But that's not where most people live. Meaning, there's not been much need for power lines in the windiest corners of the state.

Once you've established you've got wind, the next crucial need is to transmit that energy. While southeast Minnesota has decent wind generation, more importantly, they have transmission lines running north to Minneapolis and south to St. Louis.

Even though this isn't the windiest place in the region, there's enough wind here for wind power companies to want to build turbines. But...

"Transmission lines don't have the public support that wind farms do."

Many people want the U.S. to move in the direction of renewable energy, but it's not as clear when you add in the prospect of more high-voltage power lines.

Xcel Energy is spearheading the CapX2020 project, along with many other utility companies, including Rochester Public Utilities and the Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency. It would cost roughly two billion dollars. The project proposes to build three, 345-kilovolt transmission lines. One would run from the Twin Cities, through Rochester, to La Crosse.

"CapX was designed to solve some...it's Minnesota utilities trying to solve Minnesota problems," explains Nature Energies Vice President Jeff Cook-Coyle.

The idea behind CapX2020 is to upgrade some 30-year-old transmission lines and create reliability for growing cities like Rochester. It was not really intended to create ways to link wind energy to large cities. A CapX spokesperson cites Rochester and St. Cloud as the two cities with the most need for more transmission support.

"About half of the hours in the year, if a transmission line went down serving Rochester, we'd have brown outs or black outs here," exclaims Cook-Coyle. "The transmission situation serving Rochester today makes people, there's a lot of reason for people to be uncomfortable."

The Citizens Energy Task Force is against the direction that the CapX2020 project is going. Members question the immense need for more transmission lines which utility companies are demanding, and how much the projects would even help the renewable energy movement.

"How much wind will be on the lines? And right now, there are no conditions for wind on these lines," asks task force member Jeremy Chipps.

The organization is arguing for smaller, localized energy grids that would be more efficient in providing nearby cities with power. That philosophy goes against the government's idea of a nation-wide highway of renewable energy transmission.

"If you sent power more than 400 miles by alternating current lines, the line loss is so great that it's hardly worth doing," says Cook-Coyle.

The task force claims smaller smart grid technology would almost eliminate the loss of transmitting energy and would allow cities to profit, rather than the big utility companies.

"We could link up small cities and larger cities together and it would be much more cost effective. It could be using the new appliances and using systems that in fact could not only make us more efficient, but start in a trend of saving money," adds Chipps.

Cook-Coyle says the cost to build new transmission lines would add 50% to the cost of the energy.

On April 16th, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will determine whether or not there is even a need for the three new CapX2020 transmission lines. Even more power line projects have been proposed through our area to get wind energy where it needs to go.

None of these big debates are resolved, there is still time for people to get involved, and to have their voices heard. For more information on CapX2020, the Citizens Energy Task Force, or to find out the next public meeting about the project in your area, click on the links below.

Link: Public information meetings for routing the CapX2020 lines.

Link: CapX2020 Website

Link: Citizens Energy Task Force

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