by Susan Van Cleaf and Brian Rosemeyer
ECM SUN Newspapers
Xcel Energy, an administrative law judge and the Minnesota Public Utility Commission are increasing the suspense surrounding the future of a high-voltage electric power line proposed for Plymouth and Medina.
A new scene in the drama began Dec. 10, when Xcel requested to withdraw applications for both the certificate of need for the proposed Hollydale 115-kV kilovolt distribution line and the route permit.
The applications for the project have been controversial for well over a year.
Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman has been collecting facts, via public hearings and written comments, and preparing to make a recommendation to PUC on whether the high voltage alternative is needed.
Lipman recommended that PUC accept the requests for withdrawal, and on Jan. 10, PUC issued a request for public comment with a deadline of Jan. 29.
Xcel announced its request for withdrawal on its website.
“We understand the public has many concerns about the potential route for the project and other issues,” the statement reads. “Xcel Energy would like to work with the public to develop a more mutually agreeable route and infrastructure improvements. Xcel Energy hopes to file new applications for needed infrastructure improvements in summer 2014.”
According to Patti Nystuen, senior media relations representative for Xcel Energy, the company’s analysis shows that upgrades for the system are needed for the transmission system by 2016 to “continue safe and reliable service.”
The initial proposal involved removing approximately 8 miles of an existing Great River Energy-owned 69-kV overhead transmission line and constructing a 115-kV overhead transmission line in its place.
The application also called for constructing an additional 0.8 mile of new 115-kV overhead transmission line, constructing the new Pomerleau Lake substation in Plymouth and modifying associated transmission facilities in Medina and Plymouth.
The Hollydale proposed project would begin at the substation located near Willow Drive and Highway 55 in Medina and connect with the existing and Pomerleau Lake substations. Both the Medina and Hollydale substations would be upgraded to handle 115-kV of electrical power.
PUC spokesperson Dan Wolf said that his agency is tentatively planning to reach a decision on the requests in March. That decision will include whether PUC would allow the withdrawal, whether to place conditions if any on the withdrawal.
Paula Maccabee, attorney at Just Change Law Offices, represents the Western Plymouth Neighborhood Alliance and said they offer support for additional conditions and the drafting of a to-date report on Hollydale activity to be included in subsequent filings.
“We’re trying to make sure that conditions exist so Xcel can’t exhaust the resources of the community and start over,” Maccabee said. “They have to learn from what’s in this record.”
And the state Legislature has stepped into the controversy.
Both houses approved a bill last May that referred specifically to the proposed power line. State legislators had crafted companion bills after residents of both cities expressed fears about potential environmental hazards. Gov. Mark Dayton signed the final bill into law.
The legislation was in the form of an amendment to state statutes related to state regulation of energy providers. The amendment says that it applies to the proposed rebuilding of 8 miles of 69-kV transmission lines with a high-voltage transmission line to meet local area distribution needs – referring to the Hollydale project specifically.
One paragraph contains the guts of the amendment: “The certificate of need may be approved only if the commission finds by clear and convincing evidence that there is no feasible and available distribution level alternative to the transmission line.”
It goes on to say that in making its findings, the commission shall consider “cost-effectiveness, energy conservation, and the protection or enhancement of environmental quality.”
Finally, the amendment suspends further proceedings on routing of a high-voltage transmission line until PUC determines that the transmission line is needed.
However, the Hollydale bill applies only to Xcel’s initial application and, should the withdrawal be accepted, subsequent applications may not be subject to the legislation. Xcel has said it would adhere to the Hollydale law in future related applications.
“Although [the law] as written would not apply to new applications, we fully intend to comply with the intention of the law by carrying forward in a new application all of the system options, including routing options, that have been previously identified,” Nystuen said.
However, the bill’s chief author, Sen. Terri Bonoff, of Minnetonka, remains skeptical.
“I don’t know; I remain wary,” Bonoff said. “This whole process has taught me to remain wary.”
Maccabee holds similar reservations concerning the application withdrawal.
“We want to hold them to their word,” Maccabee said. “If the route isn’t acceptable, and if they have the ‘intention’ to comply with the law, it’s important that the commission makes sure that happens in reality so the enormous energy and work that the residents have already invested doesn’t get pushed aside.”
At public hearings in March in Medina, Paul Lehman, regulatory manager for Xcel Energy, explained why his company was proposing the Hollydale power line.
He said feeder circuits for the Medina-Plymouth area have been overloading over long distances. His company has exhausted reasonable solutions to the problem and is looking at how to serve the area “reliably and safely.”
Bonoff noted that, had the application process run a full course, a more suitable alternative may have surfaced.
“To be honest, if they hadn’t withdrawn and the judge had ruled against them, we would have had a stronger case,” Bonoff said. “It would have been of more comfort to the future plan if the judge had been able to complete his review process and ruled against it.”
Comments on Xcel’s request for withdrawal can be sent to [email protected]
Written comments may be sent to Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, 121 Seventh Place E., Suite 350, St. Paul, MN 55101-2147.
All comments should include the docket numbers for the two applications. The certificate of need docket number is CN-113 and the route permit docket number is RT 11-152.
More information is available at puc.state.mn.us.
After the public comment period ends on Jan. 29, interested parties will have until Feb. 19 to respond.