America’s Smartland Series: Regional Best Practice

Great Northern Transmission Line

 The quest for renewable energy and the desire to export surplus clean energy converged with the development of the upcoming Great Northern Transmission Line. Minnesota Power and Manitoba Hydro, who enjoy a longstanding relationship, are building a large transmission line from Manitoba to Minnesota, which will enable Minnesota Power to further decrease its reliance on coal to approximately 33% by utilizing clean, abundant, and flexible energy from Manitoba Hydro. It will also allow Manitoba Hydro to maximize the economic benefit of its natural energy source. Although construction is yet to begin on the Great Northern Transmission Line, it is already being touted as a success not only for its practicality, but also for fostering good relations between the United States and Canada, as well as between the energy industry and stakeholders.
Project and agreement discussions began in 2007 and eventually revolved around whether to construct a small or large line for transmission. A smaller line although initially less expensive, would still require the construction of an additional line a decade later. Therefore, it was decided in 2012 that a larger transmission line would be more practical. Although the larger 500 kilovolt transmission line has more upfront costs, a larger transmission line brings more opportunities, and reduces the possibility of “corridor fatigue,” particularly with regards to landowners affected by construction. Furthermore, the Great Northern Transmission Line will not only utilize hydro power but also wind power. Hydropower has a unique base load as a renewable. Although it is available 24 hours a day 7 days a week, without a drought, hydropower can also be stored. To allow hydro to back off and be stored, the project will use wind from Minnesota Power’s wind farm in North Dakota. In this way, the Great Northern Transmission Line will take full advantage of the complimentary relationship between wind and hydro power.
Preparations began in earnest for the Great Northern Transmission line in 2012 and included studies to determine the route for a new transmission line and defining potential corridors.  Minnesota Power considered stakeholder input a major component of this decision making process and held a series of public meetings to give landowners and other stakeholders the opportunity to provide comments and input in the planning process. Public feedback to Minnesota Power was overwhelmingly positive as the public recognized the need to diversify energy sources.  Moreover, the construction of a new transmission line to this extent will bring more opportunities for communities by providing more jobs and a higher tax base. Minnesota Power had some issues with some localities about location of the transmission line, but these issues were quickly resolved. Tribal communities were included in this discussion.

Although the Great Northern Transmission Line will not cross tribal areas, it will come near areas belonging to the Red Lake Nation. Minnesota Power worked closely with the Red Lake Nation to ensure their lands would not be adversely affected by the new transmission line. The Red Lake Nation appreciated the outreach to such an extent that they filed a letter of resolution in support of Minnesota Power’s proposed Blue Route and International Border Crossing for the Transmission Line. The Red Lake Nation instead opposed proposed routes by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, because their proposals affected tribal lands and their plans did not involve consultation with tribal leaders. Minnesota Power had no parties to the docket opposing their plans for the Great Northern Transmission Line. According to Daryl Maxwell, Department Manager of Hydro Interconnections at Manitoba Hydro, Minnesota Power did a “fabulous job of collaborating with the public” because they “truly cared about what stakeholders had to say and listened.”

The presidential permitting process required for international border is not new. Nevertheless, the cooperation between Minnesota’s Department of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in this instance is unique.  The state and federal governments came together to ensure transparency and efficiency by conducting public meetings and co-managing the drafting of the Environmental Impact Statement for the project. This cooperation allowed the project to get off the ground rapidly.  Bill Storm, Environmental Review Manager at the Minnesota Department of Commerce, “encourages applicants to submit their proposed application prior to filing a final application,” so that the state can work with companies to develop the best routes.  He encourages other states to consider this approach to make transmission projects more streamlined.  According to Storm, part of the success for this Project can be attributed to Minnesota Power “having a lot of community input before the process started” and communicating back and forth with the Minnesota Department of Commerce for 18 months before filing a formal application.  The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approved the Great Northern Transmission Line route permit in February 2016. Formal approvals are currently pending before the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), whose consent is required because the project will cross an international boundary. The U.S. DOE is helping to facilitate and fast track this process. Usually, transmission line projects can take around a decade to complete. Pending formal approval, construction is planned to begin for the Great Northern Transmission Line in 2017 to be completed in the 2020.

On the Canadian side, Manitoba Hydro cleared an extensive hearing process that resulted in a favorable outcome for construction of the transmission line. Manitoba Hydro is working with the provincial and federal governments to develop routes. It is expected that construction in Manitoba will be relatively easy because it is a more populated region, compared to the more rural Northern Minnesota.

Manitoba Hydro and Minnesota Power found that regional and international cooperation were vital for this project. David Moeller, Senior Attorney for Minnesota Power encourages policymakers to “not let geographical boundaries prevent us from coming together for broad solutions, North American solutions.”

2-28-2017 Presentation – Daryl Maxwell & David Moeller

For More Information Please Contact:

Daryl Maxwell
Department Manager, Hydro Interconnections
Manitoba Hydro

David Moeller
Senior Attorney
Minnesota Power/Allete

Bill Storm
Environmental Review Manger
Minnesota Department of Commerce