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Residents opposed to substation, transmission lines

The Mantrap substation peaks frequently at 35 percent over capacity. Itasca Mantrap officials worry it will experience failures, brownout or cause low voltage situations, impacting household appliances and electronics. Opponents of the County 18 transmission line would like to see this distributor beefed up, with lines coming to the Eagle Lake area from different directions. Because of the high cost of burying transmission lines, Great River Energy is planning on building overhead high voltage lines. (Sa...

Opposition to a proposed electrical substation and high voltage transmission lines to serve the Potato Lake area seems to be gaining momentum.

Whether it can kill the project is unclear.

Angry Hubbard County residents affected by the proposal faced off with officials from Itasca-Mantrap Cooperative and Great River Energy Wednesday night in what is becoming a bruising battle to stop the project.

Seventeen residents living along Hubbard County 18, where 3 miles of the power lines would go, have retained a St. Cloud attorney to represent their interests. They allege the wide easement needed for the lines would strip a pristine area of its trees and beauty, lower their property values and be detrimental to tourism. Some have health concerns about living underneath high voltage lines.

The project as proposed would entail I-M building the distribution substation off U.S. Highway 71 in Arago Township at an estimated cost of $600,000. Wholesale power supplier GRE would build the 7.25 miles of overhead transmission lines that would run to the substation. GRE Senior Field Representative Michelle Lommel estimated the cost at around $450,000 per mile. Underground lines were deemed financially unfeasible, the companies said, at roughly 10 to 12 times the cost.

The need

I-M Chief Executive Officer Mike Monsrud said the Potato Lake Substation, initially envisioned to go on line by 2020, is needed now because of rapid system growth in the areas around Portage, Island, Eagle, Potato and Fish Hook lakes north of Park Rapids.

The nearest substation, Mantrap, is overloaded, Monsrud explained. Because I-M is primarily a winter heating system provider, company officials said the system reached peak loads in January 2009 during the brutal winter.

The Mantrap Substation bears about 18 percent of the total system load, and is overtaxed frequently by 35 percent, Monsrud said. The substation even hits peak load at midnight when off-peak systems kick in.

"Electrical heating is far outweighing the growing use of CFL (compact fluorescent) light bulbs and building energy efficient homes," Monsrud said, addressing a question from the 40+ residents gathered.

Houses are bigger, they have many more appliances and electronic gadgets. Households now typically have more than one computer and several TV sets.

"Our conservation efforts are not enough," he said. Although I-M has considered wind power and bioplants, "it still takes lines to get it here," Monsrud pointed out.

It is the transmission lines that are raising the most objections, not necessarily the substation itself.

"We're serving the need that's already there," Monrsud asserted. "If we don't do something people are going to be sitting in the dark."

The new lines would primarily run along Highways 71 and 18 to save costs, avoid the lakes and provide the security the company needs to monitor the lines, Monsrud said.

The opposition

Opponents took issue during the nearly three-hour meeting with the company's claim that the substation is warranted and criticized I-M officials for not adequately exploring alternatives such as running additional lines from the Pine Point Substation west of the county, to the area.

Monsrud and company officials said locating the substation near the load growth made better fiscal sense. If lines must be run from the company's other substations, near Long Lake, Shingobee and Pine Point, the company would have to build two additional substations to distribute the power, and many lines to bring it to the five affected lakes.

"The cost would be monstrous," Monsrud said, adding the co-op must act in the interests of all its customers.

Shifting the costs of those alternatives to satisfy a small group opposed to the lines along County 18 would disadvantage most other customers, Monsrud pointed out.

Opponents persisted; pointing out the region has experienced a drastic building slump for two years, slowing development. Technology can change, they suggested, obviating the need for the substation. They also questioned the need for 115 kV lines that would only operate at 34.5 kV until the transmission facilities are upgraded to accommodate the higher voltage.

But mostly, opponents questioned the two companies' rationale for the need in that particular area.

To complicate matters, because the lines proposed would be less than 10 miles long, GRE has submitted a route application to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, but is not required to undergo more rigorous regulatory scrutiny through a Certificate of Need process.

Frequently, GRE's application for the route was quoted by opponents as justification not to build the substation.

Monsrud repeatedly told the opponents their issues were with the line application, not necessarily I-M's proposal for the distribution point.

That led to heated comments of finger pointing between the two energy companies and questions about which provider had a duty to its customers to disclose the details of the project, and where customers should turn for answers.

"This is a huge public relations nightmare," accused Potato Lake resident Chuck Diessner. "Not one person here has addressed the issue of need. I feel like I'm in Louisiana talking to BP."

He suggested the companies were deliberately limiting the amount of information they were publicly furnishing to justify the project.

"This is not a presentation that's convincing," Diessner argued. "People are concerned about their property."

"They should be concerned about their electricity," Monsrud countered.

"You take GRE's information and don't challenge it," said opponent Tony Platz, who was thumbing through a dog-eared and well-marked copy of the route application that he went through line by line.

Opponent Larry Jones, who identified himself as an engineer, also questioned the accuracy of the data GRE submitted in the route application. He questioned whether the projected rates of growth were accurate in a stagnant economy when building permits are down drastically and foreclosures are abnormally high in the region.

"It's the present growth" that is the concern, Monrsud said. "It's overloaded now."

I-M engineer Tony Nelson said retirees are moving to the region, upgrading seasonal homes to make them year-round, adding additions and garages and using electric heat, the "heat of choice" for the last six years.

"There is growth," Nelson said, even though the pace may be slower. It could rebound. "Everything is cyclical."

Pat O'Brien said the company has failed its customers by not doing "due diligence" looking at routing lines from the other substations and presenting alternatives to the public.

The process

I-M began a long-range study into its needs in 2002. Monsrud said the future plans were updated in 2007, 2008, 2009 and again this year as demands for electricity steadily rose faster than anticipated.

Both companies invited affected homeowners to an open house in October 2009 to discuss the project. Many of the opponents present Wednesday night attended. Opponents of two other suggested routes also voiced their opinion: Not In My Back Yard.

In March the PUC heard arguments for and against GRE's route plan.

In May, I-M formed a task force of company officials, citizens and politicians that met twice on the substation proposal.

The Office of Energy Security, part of the PUC, held a public hearing in May at which I-M officials agreed to voluntarily hold a subsequent public meeting to explain the need for the substation. That was Wednesday.

"It's an emotional issue," Monsrud agreed. "We're darned if we do and darned if we don't."

The power line will anger residents - but so will brownouts and low voltage situations caused by overloads, he said.

Wednesday night Monrsud agreed to have engineers fine-tune the load information that was presented for the entire Mantrap Substation.

The company will check meters in the immediate area the Potato Lake Substation would serve. The company will provide the information to the opponents.

I-M also agreed to provide cost estimates for alternative feeder lines running from the three other substations.

An Administrative Law Judge will be appointed to conduct one last hearing on the transmission lines and make recommendations to the PUC, which is free to accept or disregard those recommendations.

November is the potential deadline for the process to wind up.

"I doubt very much it's going to go away," Monsrud said, "The decision has already been made to go forward."

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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