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Xcel energizes new Fargo to St. Cloud powerline

The recently completed CapX2020 345-kilovolt power line from Minneapolis stretches Monday, May 4, 2015, north of Mapleton, N.D., to the Bison Substation at left. The project is the largest expansion of electrical transmission lines in the Upper Midwest in decades. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

RURAL MAPLETON, N.D. — There were no landowners at the dedication of the new 240-mile power line at the electrical substation here in eastern Cass County, but their contribution was acknowledged repeatedly on Monday by project leaders.

Laura McCarten, an Xcel Energy vice president who helped kick off the project a decade ago, rattled off fun facts such as the 1.4 million man hours spent on this segment of the CapX2020 project. Then she added: "One of the biggest things about it is what you don't hear and that is the trouble."

"We the utilities have spent a great deal of time researching past efforts and learning from past experiences, and we've learned that to be successful, any developed project like this has to be transparent," said Dan Kline, an Xcel executive and one of the executive directors of the CapX2020 project. "You need to collaborate with all the impacted stakeholders."

Then as now, one of the main goals was to connect North Dakota power plants with Minnesota consumers. For Xcel, one of 10 power companies involved in CapX2020, the power plant it wants to connect to is the new wind farm near Courtenay, N.D., in Stutsman County.

Project sponsors such as Terry Grove, an executive with Great River Energy in Maple Grove, Minn., and the other CapX2020 executive director, said additional power lines also benefit Fargo-Moorhead customers because redundancy increases reliability.

Bigger pipeline

As dignitaries lined up to cut a blue ribbon, the buzz of the electrical transformers behind them indicated that this segment of CapX2020 is already in operation. Project officials said they turned on the power a month ago.

The segment is made up of nearly 1,500 power poles and other structures and 9 million feet of power lines stretching from Monticello, Minn., at the edge of the Twin Cities to Mapleton's Bison Substation, so named by North Dakota State University alumni working on the project.

The power buzzing in the transformers come from another power line that stretches west to the coal power plants in Center, N.D.

Until the coming of CapX2020, existing power lines weren't enough to transmit much more electricity than they already did. There are two other CapX2020 segments. One to the north connects Grand Rapids, Minn., and Bemidji, and one to the south connects La Crosse, Wis., to Big Stone City, S.D.

Kline said engineers and construction crews had to cope with tough conditions ranging from the soft clay soil of the Red River Valley, which requires deeper foundations for power poles, to the freezing temperatures, which takes its toll on diesel-powered vehicles and workers.

The hardest task

But bigger than any challenge were the thousands of landowners who project sponsors had to persuade to allow CapX2020 be built on their farmland; they were paid for that right.

"Typically, that's the toughest thing. We can build and design just about anything," McCarten told The Forum. "You're on people's land and their property."

"Not everybody thinks it's as beautiful as we do," said Chris Clark, Xcel's president for Minnesota operations.

Kline said project sponsors attended every public meeting they were invited to, sent 10,000 mailers and engaged in a social media campaign to explain their position.

For him, one of the lessons learned probably came out of the massive protests of the 1970s surrounding the CU powerline from a power plant at the coal mines in Underwood, N.D., to the Twin Cities market. Though the 430-mile power line finally was approved, angry farmers would sabotage it for years afterward, shooting at electrical equipment and tearing down towers, according to a history of the protest by the late Paul Wellstone, a political scientist turned Minnesota U.S. senator.

There's a direct link between that past controversy and CapX2020: The two electric cooperatives that built the CU power line later formed Great River Energy.

Protests against CapX2020 have been limited. Homeowners in the Oxbow-Hickson-Bakke area south of Fargo complained when the power lines were rerouted closer to their homes and away from the site of the future Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion. North Dakota regulators later voted to let the project begin and protesters weren't able to make much headway in court.

Nevertheless, CapX2020 sponsors hope they don't have to repeat the monumental task of winning approval from so many landowners anytime soon.

The power lines are strung on just one side of the poles, McCarten said. When it's time to expand the transmission capacity again, sponsors can add new lines on the other side without having to approach new landowners.

Tu-Uyen Tran
Tran is an enterprise reporter with the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began his newspaper career in 1999 as a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, now owned by Forum Communications. He began working for the Forum in September 2014. Tran grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington.
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