Associated Press

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) -- A regional power-grid agency is trying to salvage the transmission line portion of a defunct coal plant project in northeastern South Dakota by encouraging wind developers to replace the lost megawatts.

Big Stone II's plans had called for new and upgraded high-voltage power lines in southern Minnesota to carry power from both the coal plant and proposed wind farms to customers to the east.

The Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator now says that the project's demise "creates an opportunity" for wind developers to "back fill" the 550 megawatts of power that Big Stone II was supposed to generate.

"The Big Stone II applicants have expressed willingness to work with any entity or group interested in constructing transmission lines in this area regarding easements and route permits that have already been secured and are currently held by the applicants," the Indiana-based agency wrote in a letter to developers.

SummitWind project manager Jim Newcomb said the agency's efforts are "a very good sign," but wind producers are going to need a cheaper way to connect. The transmission costs that the Midwest ISO has suggested are four times what would be typical, he said.

"That's really the main hang-up right now," Newcomb said. "There's plenty of people who want to get on board."

SummitWind is planning to build a wind farm along the Coteau Des Prairies ridge of northeastern South Dakota. The company has finished most of the planning, easements, leases and community work for the 250-megawatt first phase, but owner-operator Iberdrola Renewables of Spain is not yet pressing forward.

"They're going to come in and construct the wind plant and operate it, and they're holding back," Newcomb said. "They're simply saying this transmission has to get figured out first before we're going to move ahead."

Big Stone II's future had been in trouble since Otter Tail Power Co. withdrew from the project in September.

The project had the necessary permits from state regulators for construction to get under way, but the remaining partners called it quits last month, saying financing proved to be too difficult.

South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds expressed concern at the time that North Dakota and South Dakota could lose up to 1,000 megawatts of electric transmission capacity that could be used to expand the wind power industry in both states.

Newcomb said the Big Stone II transmission project would have to be redesigned to include other wind generators, a process that could take months.

Otter Tail's portion was a large segment of an upgrade to the grid, he said, and "it will take a utility to jump and say we're willing to own, manage and maintain the line."

Midwest ISO, which oversees electrical transmission in the region, said in the letter that it hopes to begin notifying eligible applicants in January.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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