Minnesota PUC defers action on power line associated with contentious power plant sale in N.D.

Regulators told a Minnesota-based utility Thursday that they need more information before signing off on a permit transfer necessary for a financially troubled coal-fired power plant in North Dakota to be sold to a Bismarck-based marketer of wholesale electricity.

Minnesota’s Public Utilities Commission voted 4-1 to defer a decision on a permit transfer for a power line that would be part of the planned sale of the Coal Creek Station. John Tuma, the commissioner who asked for the delay, said he expects the approval process could be held up a couple more months though he was uncertain about the specific timeline.

Environmental groups that would rather see the plant shut down argued against the permit transfer, which was sought by Maple Grove-based Great River Energy. They argued that the process lacked transparency and public engagement by stakeholders. Around 800 public comments were filed in the case.

At issue issue is a permit for a Great River high-voltage power line that runs from Traverse County at the North Dakota border to a facility near Buffalo, northwest of Minneapolis. Great River asked the commission to transfer its permit for the line and associated facilities to a new company, Nexus Line LLC, which is buying the power plant from Great River. Nexus, in turn, is an affiliate of Rainbow Energy Marketing Corp.

North Dakota officials have hailed the sale as a savior for hundreds of jobs at the power plant near Underwood, the largest in the state, and at an associated coal mine. Coal Creek Station has operated for more than 40 years and employs 260 workers. The mine has about 500 workers. Rainbow Energy has promised to incorporate technology to capture carbon dioxide emissions from the plant, and to also use the line to transmit wind energy.

Instead of deciding on the permit transfer, the Minnesota regulators gave Nexus 30 days to submit a decommissioning plan in case the line is ever shut down permanently. They also want financial assurances that the company can meet its commitments if that happens, and more information on the sources for the power that the line would carry. Commission staff would then set a schedule for submitting replies and public comments.

“I’m not trying to throw a wrench into this agreement but I have a duty,” Tuma said. “I feel that I just need a little bit more information.”

Tuma and other speakers alluded to how construction of the line was the subject of bitter protests by farmers in the 1970s over land use and energy needs. The State Patrol was deployed to restore order. The protests drew a young college professor, Paul Wellstone, and launched him on a career of grass-roots activism that carried him into the U.S. Senate.

Great River says the Coal Creek plant lost $170 million in energy sales in 2019. The company once said it would shutter the plant in the second half of 2022 if no buyer was found, and it offered to sell the plant for just $1. The company’s member cooperatives approved the sale of the power plant and transmission line in July. Terms were not disclosed. North Dakota regulators still must sign off on several permits.

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