The three lines are major arteries in the CapX2020 project, a joint initiative by 11 Minnesota utilities. When complete, the upgrade will include four lines totalling more than 1,000 kilometres at a cost of $1.7 billion.
"We expect that three route permits will be granted by the Minnesota Public Utility Commission over the course of the summer," says Terry Grove, transmission services manager at Great River Energy and a co-director of CapX2020. "That's not to say there aren't concerns among landowners and valid concerns about the way people perceive they could be impacted."
Like most major transmission upgrades, the CapX plan has invited significant public scrutiny, landowner concerns, cost concerns and critical newspaper accounts. But close inspection and opposition are inevitable for such a project, which is among the most progressed of several big wires upgrades planned across the US in coming years. CapX is slated for build-out between 2012 and 2015.
"CapX suffers from being the first one out of the gate for a large project like this so it's going to get a lot of attention," says Beth Soholt, director of Wind on the Wires, an advocacy group that promotes transmission expansion in the wind-rich Upper Midwest.
The four new lines will help accommodate Minnesota's robust renewable energy standard (RES) that requires Xcel Energy, the biggest regional utility, to deliver 30% of its energy from green sources by 2020, while other state utilities must reach 25% - a total of around 5GW of new capacity required from all utilities.
The three lines expecting approval this summer will carry renewable and non-renewable electricity and so are considered "reliability projects" by the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator (MISO), giving them a structured cost-allocation treatment.
The fourth project, the Brookings line, would cut roughly a dozen miles into South Dakota, primarily carry renewable electricity and not receive reliability-project status. It is still expected to receive MISO cost-allocation treatment through a different mechanism that requires Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (Ferc) approval.
Brookings and two of the other lines involve 345kV wires in southern and central Minnesota, including one that cuts across the Mississippi River through a national wildlife refuge and into Wisconsin. The shortest leg, a 230kV line, will traverse 110 kilometres of northern Minnesota.
As many as 150 Minnesota wind projects are currently waiting in the MISO queue because of inadequacies in a regional system that has little wires upgrades in 30 years as the state's electricity consumption has doubled.
Minnesota added only 56MW of new wind power last year and, with 1.8GW online, dropped from third to fifth among cumulative state wind power rankings.
Soholt blames the economy for the lack of urgency regarding new transmission among the public and utilities alike. Because overall demand for electricity has waned since the downturn, she says, utilities can add nothing to their renewables totals and still edge closer to reaching target RES percentages.
"But once the economy picks up a little bit more and they hit the next benchmark where they need to acquire more wind, this is going to become a serious impediment," Soholt says.