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America's future wind web?

Wind power could feed 20 percent of the US energy diet. But first, the country needs a new energy network.

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“The purpose of our plan is to build the infrastructure to where the wind blows most abundantly,” says Lisa Aragon, director of strategic initiatives at ITC. “As an independent transmission company, we can’t favor one type of energy over another. We do favor harnessing the wind for both environmental sustainability and energy security reasons.”

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Environmentalist response
But critics have dubbed the new transmission line plan the “Green-wash Express” saying it could easily transmit as much or more energy produced by coal-fired power plants in South Dakota as wind energy.

“There’s no regulatory jurisdiction over this ‘green-power’ power line, not even a fig leaf that would require it to carry wind power,” says Paula Maccabee, counsel for Citizens Energy Task Force in Minneapolis, a group opposing the line. “It’s name is just a public relations slogan.”

Such plans, however, arrive amid a huge political push to harness wind power as one installment toward lessening US carbon emissions from energy production. President Obama has called for the United States to double renewable energy production in three years and get 25% of the nation's electricity from renewable resources by 2025. The new Obama stimulus plan includes $4 billion for a “Smart Grid” and new transmission lines.

Add to that the impetus generated as soon as next month when Congress is expected to begin weighing a new national “renewable electricity standard” that would require all electric utilities to ensure a portion of their power is from renewable sources. A draft bill before the US Senate calls for at least 20 percent of power from renewable sources by 2021 with gains in energy efficiency permitted to make up a quarter of the total.

Even without federal legislation, however, state mandates in nearly half of all states will require a significant percentage of power to be from renewable sources. In Minnesota, for instance, the state’s renewable portfolio standard calls for 25 percent renewable power by 2025.

To that end, there is CapX, a joint effort by 11 utilities that own transmission lines in Minnesota and surrounding regions to bring Dakota wind power to their city centers. Yet the new CapX line could one-day carry power transmitted from Big Stone II, a coal-fired power plant in South Dakota, documents show. And that has Jeremy Chipps, who lives near Lacrescent, Minn., where the line would run, up in arms to fight it.

Efficiency, cost, environmental concerns, and national security are Mr. Chipps’s talking points. Beside transmission line losses, the cost and potential of such lines as a terrorist target point to the need for more localized renewable power generation such as solar panels and local wind turbines, he says. And then there’s the coal-power carried on the lines.

“It really is time to deploy an energy production and smart-grid systems that are much safer, more intelligent, and much more efficient,” Chipps says. “If we do this, we won’t need massive, costly networks of new transmission lines.”

Who will pay for the lines?
Transmission costs traditionally end up paid for by rate-payers in the states that the lines cross. The Green Power Express, for instance, would cross seven states, each with its own siting requirements and ways of allocating who pays. So, how will South Dakotans feel if they end up paying higher electric rates for lines serving other states?

“To what extent do [rate-payers] have an appetite for increasing utility bills?” asks Dusty Johnson, chairman of the South Dakota Public Utility Commission. “There are some very significant geopolitical concerns when people start talking about multibillion [dollar] transmission projects.”

He agrees with Chipps that there is a “technological risk” and danger in investing in costly lines that might not be needed in the future.