A long time passing

Minnesota’s Renewable Energy Standard should end plans for the Big Stone II Coal Plant.

Holly Lahd

While many of us students on the St. Paul campus were cramming for tests and writing papers last Thursday, the most ambitious renewable electricity standard in the country was signed into law by Gov. Pawlenty in the Cargill building on the St. Paul campus. It’s about time.

The Renewable Energy Standard requires that by 2025, 25 percent of Minnesota’s electricity mix be supplied by renewable sources like wind, water and solar power. Xcel Energy is already required to get its mix up to 30 percent renewables by that time.

Gov. Pawlenty put it well by saying after a governors’ agreement to work on global warming: “Thankfully the country has reached a tipping point on this issue. I wish we had done it 20 years ago.”

Yes, it would have been great to have passed something like the RES 20 years ago. But what’s a puzzle to me is why it couldn’t be done six years ago, when Sen. Ellen Anderson (DFL- St. Paul) introduced the bill? Or why the state house didn’t even hold a floor vote on it last year? As the Star Tribune pointed out in an editorial praising the passage of the RES, the change in power in the legislature alone is not enough to account for the overwhelming passage of the standard.

Maybe something is different in the water over at the state capitol. Perhaps opposition to utility mandates has given way to the reality of the scope of the global warming problem and the speed of coming carbon caps and taxes. It could have finally clicked for some legislators that such a standard won’t hurt the economy, but rather spur new clean energy projects and rural economies in out-state Minnesota. Or maybe it was that they finally heard the voices of the vast majority of Minnesotans who support the standard and have done so for some time.

Either way, Minnesota has positioned itself as a leader for creating new sources of clean electricity from wind, biomass, solar and other sources.

All of this is great news except if you are trying to build a giant new coal power plant to produce dirty electricity for the state. And remarkably, the Big Stone II coal power plant project on the state’s western border continues to push for final clearance in the face of a tidal wave of new clean energy legislation.

The Big Stone II coal power plant proposal is straight out of the Stone Age when it comes to design and vision. Sorry for the pun, it just works so well to describe the project.

In case you haven’t been following this story, the Big Stone II coal power plant is a proposed project less than five miles into South Dakota on the Minnesota and South Dakota border.

The 630 megawatts supplied from the project would go to areas in Western Minnesota and areas in Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota.

With it come global warming emissions that would roughly equal the current total emissions from cars in South Dakota. And those emissions would affect Minnesota, too.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is expected to make a decision in April as to whether the Big Stone II partners will be awarded a permit to build new transmission lines across the state.

Recently, the Minnesota Department of Commerce has recommended that the transmission permit be denied in light of Gov. Pawlenty’s new commitment to reducing global warming emissions in the state.

Through the Renewable Electricity Standard, Otter Tail Power and other utilities are also required to have 25 percent of their electricity produced come from renewables. But by building 630 megawatts of electricity capacity from coal, they are making it harder to achieve the required 25 percent.

But according to the Big Stone II project website, Minnesota “needs Big Stone II now more than ever.”

Are they seriously promoting this talking point? Their site continues that the transmission lines built to carry the power of Big Stone II will be needed to carry the wind energy.

True, we need transmission lines for additional wind power. But if the caveat is that we have to have Big Stone II built to get the lines for the wind energy, the gains in clean energy from wind will be undercut with the carbon dioxide, mercury and sulfur dioxide emissions from the coal plant.

If the RES doesn’t totally kill the Big Stone II project, passage of the Global Warming Mitigation Act in the state legislature would. The bill would explicitly prohibit the “import of power from a new large energy facility that would contribute to statewide power sector carbon dioxide emissions”. That import clause would be the final nail in the coffin for Big Stone II.

This bill, with others aimed at energy efficiency and conservation, together would make Minnesota the undeniable leader in renewable energy. I hope the 2007 session can make this vision a reality, and with it bury plans for Big

Stone II and any other future traditional coal plants to power our state.

Holly Lahd welcomes comments at [email protected]