More coal in wind country?

The Big Stone II power plant in South Dakota is the wrong choice for Minnesota’s energy future.

by Holly Lahd

Minnesota has been called the Saudi Arabia of wind power by our own Gov. Tim Pawlenty. But, just across the border in South Dakota, a proposed large coal power plant is sneaking onto the energy scene. The proposed power plant, named Big Stone II, is the wrong type of technology for Minnesota consumers. Our generation will have to live with the financial and environmental costs of this project for a long time. With the reality of global warming, we simply cannot afford to invest in more dirty coal technologies in Minnesota.

If built, Big Stone II would produce 600 megawatts of electricity for the seven utilities collaborating on the project. This plant would produce 4.5 million tons of carbon dioxide, a leading global warming contributor, into the atmosphere every year for the 40-plus years it’s expected to run. That is equivalent to about a third of all the carbon dioxide emissions the entire state of South Dakota currently produces each year. Last summer the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission voted to approve the construction of Big Stone II. Soon after, the utilities in charge of the project announced that the initial costs of the plan had jumped from $1 billion to $1.6 billion. Nevertheless, the project pushes on, promoting itself as an inexpensive energy source.

But coal is not the cheap, reliable energy source that proponents often claim it is. Besides the environmental and health costs of coal, economic experts are publicly warning of an impending carbon tax on carbon dioxide emissions. When, not if, Congress enacts a tax on carbon emissions, large-scale coal plants like Big Stone II will be hit with huge costs for the emissions. Why should we care? As electricity consumers, these additional costs will be passed on to us through higher electricity rates. Alternatively, wind power produces no emissions and wouldn’t be subject to the same tax, making it cheaper for consumers.

As Barbara Freese, a consultant for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said, “We’re not asking rate-payers to pay more for clean energy, because the cleaner alternatives will actually cost rate-payers less and provide far more jobs and economic development than the coal plant would.” There goes the argument that wind is too expensive.

And as for reliability, the current Big Stone I plant has been plagued with coal shortages due to railroad disruptions. At one point this summer, the site had only a 10-day supply of coal, drastically down from the standard minimum 30-day supply. If the current plant isn’t receiving enough coal, how will another plant fare?

Another problem with Big Stone II is that it will use the same tired coal technologies of the past. This project will not use any of the new coal gasification technologies. In defense of the project, the Big Stone II will add additional scrubbers to reduce the total sulfur emissions from the site. But again, wind power produces no emissions.

The public utilities commissioners said in their approval decision of the permit that it was not under their jurisdiction to decide on the carbon dioxide emissions and their contribution to global warming. Yes, the plant would produce 4.5 million tons of CO2, but that’s just a drop in the bucket when you look at all the emissions of the country. But then whose job is it to draw the line on global warming pollution? With plans for more than 150 new coal plants in this country, all these plants combined could add another 10 percent to the U.S.’s total CO2 emissions. Public utilities commissioners make decisions that affect the energy futures for residents across the state. The serious threat that global warming poses to South Dakotans and Minnesotans must be included in the commission’s decision process.

Michael Noble, executive director of Fresh Energy, summarized the project well when he said, “This plant should never be built. It’s bad economically and an obsolete and antiquated idea before the doors would even open. Ö The legacy we leave our children and grandchildren cannot include more global warming pollutants and the wasting of money on old-fashioned thinking and technology.”

Just south of the Big Stone II site is Buffalo Ridge, the windiest part of Minnesota. Yet the wind doesn’t start or stop at the border. With all the wind resources we have here in South Dakota and Minnesota, is it wise to build a dirty coal plant in the middle of wind country?

Some say that wind power is the future, but until then, we need to rely on coal. But when will the future arrive? We have the technologies and we certainly have the wind capacity in Minnesota to make wind power an economically viable, clean and reliable form of energy. With the realities of global warming, we need to say no to more dirty coal technologies in Minnesota. In Minnesota, public utilities commissioners are appointed to six-year terms, yet they make decisions that have impacts for almost half a century. If wind is the future, we need to make that decision now by saying no to more coal plants.

On Monday, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will hold a public hearing in St. Paul on the proposed transmission lines to Big Stone II. As a generation, we have the most at stake in the approval of this plant because we will be the ones living with it the longest. Students should speak up and say, as future leaders, that we want our future to be powered on clean, renewable sources and not old coal technologies. Our chance to say this is now. I will be at the Big Stone II hearing Monday; I hope to see you there, too.

Note: Public hearings will be at 1 and 6 p.m. Monday in the MPUC Large Hearing Room at 121 Seventh Place E., Suite 300, St. Paul

Holly Lahd welcomes comments at [email protected]