Minn. PUC approves route for 500-kV Great Northern line, follows ALJ recommendation

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved a final route for the Great Northern Transmission Line that includes the Effie variation, which is the only deviation from Minnesota Power’s proposed route for the project, a utility spokesperson told TransmissionHub Feb. 29.

The Feb. 26 decision from the PUC was the last significant state regulatory action needed for the project sponsors, Minnesota Power and Manitoba Hydro, with the Presidential Permit still needed, the Minnesota Power spokesperson said. That permit is expected in March or April, she said.

On the Canadian side of the border, the Clean Environment Commission (CEC) in Manitoba will hold a hearing on the project, but no date has been set for the hearing, a Manitoba Hydro spokesperson told TransmissionHub Feb. 29. The Minister of Conservation and Water Stewardship on Dec. 31, 2015, asked the CEC to hold a public hearing on the transmission line, the Manitoba Hydro spokesperson noted.

The Great Northern Transmission Line is designed to send hydropower from Canada to Minnesota Power, while allowing Minnesota Power to send wind power into Manitoba for “storage” under the unique power purchase agreements between Manitoba Hydro and Minnesota Hydro, which is owned by ALLETE Inc. (NYSE:ALE). Under the agreements, Minnesota Power can send wind power from its Bison wind project in North Dakota to Manitoba Hydro when wind production is high, typically at night, to be stored behind Manitoba Hydro’s dams in Canada, and when wind production is lower, usually during the day, dam operators can increase output and send clean power to the Minnesota Power grid, Minnesota Power said in a Feb. 26 statement.

The 500-kV project, with the Minnesota 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, is designed to provide about 883 MW of transfer capability between the two markets.

Construction is expected to begin in earnest in 2017, with an in-service date planned in 2020, Minnesota Power said in the statement. “We do expect to do some initial work this winter,” such as clearing trees, before the main construction work begins in 2017, the utility spokesperson told TransmissionHub.

The route decision from the PUC, which was not available at press time, followed the route recommended by a PUC administrative law judge in early January, she said. That route in large part followed Minnesota Power’s proposed “Blue Route,” with two variations in the southeast portion of the project.

As TransmissionHub reported when the ALJ issued the ruling, the Effie variation and East Bear Lake variation, both of which are near Effie, Minn., were 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.”

In its statement, Minnesota Power estimated that the total cost of the project would be between $560m and $710m.  

The utility needs the line to deliver power to its customers by June 1, 2020, under power purchase agreements with Manitoba Hydro that were approved by the PUC, it said.

"Minnesota Power worked hard early on to engage landowners, community members, tribal and other stakeholders to explain the project and receive feedback. The extensive outreach, including more than 75 meetings and open houses, was a critical part of the project development process," said Brad Oachs, chief operating officer for Minnesota Power. "We also received an unprecedented level of local, state and federal involvement, including coordination with the U.S. Department of Energy and the Minnesota Department of Commerce, in the route development, refinement and selection process that was critical to this important regulatory outcome,” he said.

The line will generally require a 200-foot-wide right-of-way, with about four or five structures per mile. Each structure is about 100 to 170 feet in height and the specific types of structures will depend on land type and land use, Minnesota Power said.