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Area plan to upgrade grid would cost $3 billion, improve reliability and help prevent blackouts

The ambitious $10.4 billion plan was approved by the regional transmission organization that serves Minnesota and much of North Dakota, but will require regulatory approval.

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FARGO — North Dakota has ample electricity but has long faced bottlenecks in the transmission grid making it difficult to deliver power to markets to the east and south.

That “trapped” power means lower revenues for North Dakota power generators, especially wind farms that are located in a wide swath of the state — a problem that would be addressed in a massive $10.4 billion plan to augment regional transmission systems.

The board of directors for the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, a regional transmission organization commonly called MISO, has approved the plan, described as the nation’s largest-ever portfolio of regional transmission projects.

The proposal includes a 345-kilovolt transmission line from Jamestown to Ellendale in North Dakota, as well as a 345-kilovolt line from Otter Tail Power Company’s Big Stone Plant in northeastern South Dakota to Alexandria, Minnesota. That line, in turn, would connect to a proposed line extending north to Minnesota’s Iron Range.

The new line to Alexandria and beyond would add a second circuit to a line from Fargo to St. Cloud, Minnesota.

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Combined, those projects have a price tag of $955 million, and MISO said it will benefit electricity consumers by increasing grid capacity and reliability. Proposed transmission projects in MISO’s North Grid territory total about $3 billion.

Otter Tail Power Company and Montana-Dakota Utilities are collaborating on the new transmission line from Jamestown to Ellendale, which MISO estimates will cost $439 million.

"This project allows both companies to creat a more resilient regional transmission rid while continuing to provide reliable, affordable electricity customers can count on," said Stepanie Hoff, Otter Tail Power's communications director.

Otter Tail Power will lead development and construction of the new line, which will connect an Otter Tail Power substation in Jamestown to a MDU substation in Ellendale.

Julie Fedorchak, chairwoman of the North Dakota Public Service Commission and liaison to MISO, said the transmission projects would benefit North Dakota.

“There’s a lot of constraints in North Dakota getting all of our electricity, regardless of source of generation, to markets in the east,” she said.

If approved, the Jamestown-to-Ellendale line “will help get our electricity to markets where its wanted and needed,” Fedorchak said.

Also, by increasing transmission, the grid will have more resilience and reliability by being able to provide power from more diverse sources. If the wind is blowing in North Dakota but not in Iowa, for example, delivering the North Dakota wind power can make up for the power lag in Iowa, she said.

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“Transmission helps because it helps move power more efficiently,” helping to avoid blackouts, Fedorchak said.

MISO maps showing the availability and pricing of electricity in real time routinely show that North Dakota has abundant “trapped” electricity that can’t be efficiently exported from the state — including the area from Jamestown to Ellendale — resulting in a lower price, she said.

“That’s a constant problem in that area,” Fedorchak said. The current electricity grid is basically full, making it expensive to add new generation sources, since they have to build transmission to add capacity, she said.

Otter Tail Power Company has a substation near the proposed Jamestown-Ellendale line, and therefore might be selected by MISO to lead that project. Otter Tail is one of 10 utilities that joined together as CapX2020 and now are known as Grid North Partners to build new transmission, a group that also includes Xcel Energy.

A joint statement by the Grid North Partners said they support the new MISO transmission plan and “stand ready to develop these projects,” which the utility partners said “will provide greater access to renewable energy over a wide geographic area and save costs by locating new transmission lines near or along existing transmission or other infrastructure corridors reducing impacts to landowners by sharing rights-of-way.”

Tony Grindberg, Xcel Energy’s principal manager in North Dakota, said transmission investments are needed to replace aging infrastructure and to add capacity.

“The demand for energy is going to increase,” he said. Much of the new generation capacity will be from renewable sources, such as wind and solar power.

Xcel Energy, for example, has announced plans to be carbon-free by 2050, with a goal of being 80% carbon-free by 2030. Xcel would continue to rely on two nuclear power plants in Minnesota and also would use gas-fired generation while phasing out its fleet of coal-fired power plants.

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The MISO transmission plan will require regulatory approval in all states involved, including North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“It takes many years to go through, but it’s anticipating and planning for many years to come,” Grindberg said.

If approved, costs of the transmission projects would be paid by ratepayers across the regional MISO footprint, Fedorchak said.

Otter Tail Power and MDU expect to begin collaboration with landowners, local governments and agencies late in 2022.

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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