An administrative law judge (ALJ) with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) on Jan. 4 ruled that Minnesota Power satisfied the criteria for the issuance of a route permit for the Minnesota portion of the Great Northern Transmission Line and recommended that the PUC approve a route permit with a few variations on Minnesota Power’s proposed route.
Minnesota Power is owned by ALLETE (NYSE:ALE), and a utility spokesperson on Jan. 5 told TransmissionHub that the company is pleased with the ALJ recommendation.
By recommending that the PUC approve in large part Minnesota Power’s proposed “Blue Route,” including a critical international border crossing, the ALJ ruling reflects Minnesota Power’s “tremendous and frequent engagement with stakeholders throughout the process,” the utility spokesperson said.
While the ALJ decision is not binding, it is “an important consideration” in the PUC decision-making process, and Minnesota Power expects a final PUC route ruling on the project in late February or early March, the spokesperson said.
Minnesota Power has teamed up with Manitoba Hydro to try and build the 500-kV Great Northern line, with the United States’ portion extending 220 miles from the Canadian border near Roseau, Minn., to a new 500-kV Iron Range substation near the existing Blackberry substation east of Grand Rapids, Minn. The project is designed to provide about 883 MW of transfer capability between the two markets, and construction is expected to begin in 2017, with an in-service date planned in 2020.
In November 2015, ALLETE received the final Environmental Impact Statement from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the Minnesota Department of Commerce for the Great Northern line, which followed a certificate of need from the PUC. Manitoba Hydro is in the process of securing a license for the Manitoba portion of the line, and Minnesota Power is awaiting DOE action on its application for a Presidential Permit. The U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State have advised DOE that they have no objections to the issuance of a Presidential Permit for the project, the ALJ said.
In its application with the PUC, Minnesota Power said that the Great Northern project is expected to cost between $495.5m and $647.7m, based on proposed routes and segment options.
In the recommendation, ALJ Ann O’Reilly noted that Minnesota Power’s application included two proposed routes – a Blue Route and an Orange Route – each of which would begin at the same U.S.-Canada border crossing near Roseau, Minn., and continue south to Grand Rapids, Minn., with a few variations in between.
The factors that favor the Blue Route are that the Orange Route would cross a larger portion of wildlife management areas and the Blue Route parallels existing corridors for a greater distance than the Orange Route, the ALJ said, noting that the costs of the routes are not significantly different. While the Blue Route has more potential impact on private property and residences, the use of existing corridors would result in fewer new impacts, and “the public commentary and community interests support the Blue Route over the Orange Route,” rendering the Blue Route as the better option, the ALJ said.
The recommendation included a couple variations on the proposed Blue Route in the southeast portion of the project – an Effie variation and East Bear Lake variation – both of which are near Effie, Minn., and both of which are supported by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the communities in the region. “These voices and preferences cannot be ignored,” the ALJ said, noting that while the Effie variation would pass by more residences and carry a higher cost, it would parallel existing corridors and have less of an impact on “pristine wilderness and intact old growth forest.”
The residences that would be affected by the Effie variation are already affected by existing 230-kV and 500-kV lines in the corridor, and the proposed Blue and Orange Routes would cause new impacts in sensitive areas of biodiversity and critical habitats, the ALJ said.
In December 2015, FERC approved incentive rate treatments for ALLETE for its portion of the Great Northern line, pointing out that the project is designed to allow for the exchange of hydropower and wind energy resources in Manitoba and Minnesota, along with boosting the reliability of transmission at the Manitoba-United States border crossing, which currently includes three 230-kV lines and one 500-kV line. “Through two sets of innovate hydro-and-wind power supply and exchange agreements, ALLETE plans to send excess, unused wind power during high wind conditions over the Great Northern Project” to Manitoba Hydro, and during low wind conditions, Manitoba Hydro would send excess hydropower to ALLETE, FERC said.