Earlier this year, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave a report card for the state of the nation’s infrastructure, and the energy sector received a D+. This is because the United States relies on an aging electrical grid, according to ASCE, and while demand for electricity has remained level, the availability of energy will become more challenging after 2020 as the population increases. 

This wasn’t great news, but work is being done to help the situation, most notably on the more than $2 billion worth of projects in the CapX2020 plan. The largest development of new transmission lines in the upper Midwest in nearly 40 years, CapX2020 is a joint initiative of 11 transmission-owning utilities in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. The utilities – Xcel Energy, Central Minnesota Municipal Power Agency, Dairyland Power Cooperative, Great River Energy, Minnesota Power, Minnkota Power Cooperative, Missouri River Energy Services, Otter Tail Power Co., Rochester Public Utilities, Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency and WPPI Energy – came together to upgrade and expand the electrical transmission grid to ensure continued reliable and affordable service. 

“In 2004, most of the utilities that make up CapX2020 came together because they recognized they had a similar need for transmission upgrades,” explains Tim Carlsgaard, communications and public affairs manager for CapX2020 and Xcel Energy. “New transmission lines hadn’t been built in several decades and the issues with the grid had to be addressed. By partnering together, this was a way to go about it differently than each utility going out and doing the work on its own. Planning engineers came in and developed a set of lines that the utilities could partner on…this was a unique and innovative approach in the industry.”

The new transmission lines are being built in phases, and have been designed to meet increasing demand as well as support the region’s expansion of renewable energy resources. The first group of CapX2020 projects involves five major transmission lines:

  • A 230-kilovolt (kV) line spanning 68 miles from Bemidji to Grand Rapids, Minn.;
  • A 345-kV line stretching about 240 miles from Fargo, N.D., to Monticello, Minn.;
  • A 345-kV line crossing 150 miles from Hampton, Minn., across the Mississippi River to La Crosse, Wis;
  • A 345-kV line covering 250 miles from Brookings, S.D., to Hampton, Minn.; and
  • A 345-kV line covering about 70 miles between Big Stone City, S.D. and Brookings County, S.D.

These projects also involve the construction of substations and associated structures. “These five projects cover nearly 800 miles of new transmission, involving $2.2 billion in investments and four states,” Carlsgaard says. “The 230-kV line is complete, and we have three projects under construction on the 345-kV lines. Those three projects are on schedule, and they should be in service in 2015. 

“The last project is in South Dakota, and it is in the midst of the regulatory process. We hope to get regulatory approval from South Dakota in early 2014, and then that line will be in service by 2017.” 

“We are well on our way to meeting this ambitious plan and addressing all of the need issues,” he continues. “Each day brings new challenges – weather, crossing the Mississippi River and working in wet conditions, as examples – but this is what happens when you are building 500 miles of transmission line simultaneously.”

Collaboration and Coordination

One of the first challenges of the CapX2020 project was getting all of the parties together, but all agreed that these projects were important for the region. The Upper Midwest’s electrical transmission grid hasn’t had a major upgrade in nearly 40 years, although electrical consumption continues to increase. Electricity use in Minnesota has nearly doubled since 1980, according to the state’s department of commerce, and Wisconsin has seen its energy use grow 2 percent annually during the past decade. South Dakota’s energy demand is projected to grow 1 to 2 percent annually during the next 10 to 15 years, and North Dakota saw its electricity use increase 2 percent annually from 1980 to 2005. 

The CapX2020 partnership is important to address these needs, but not only does it involve 11 different entities, the group includes a mix of municipal utilities, investor-owned utilities and co-op organizations. Carlsgaard explains “somehow we’ve made it work,” but it required a lot of cooperation and mindfulness of the shared goal – to increase demand, ensure ongoing reliability and support renewable energy expansion. 

“Collaboration and coordination is really the key to building this many projects with that many different partners,” Carlsgaard says. “Each project has five partners, a project team and a management committee that is similar to a board of directors,. A project management office works among the projects, sharing information. They are constantly working on how they can work better, and sharing lessons learned among the projects.”

In September, he notes, the CapX2020 projects spent more than $60 million on construction, and collaboration is critical to get that much material delivered and built in four different states. Concrete, for example, has to come from local suppliers, and on the project that is 210 miles long, CapX2020 is using at least five different concrete companies to ensure it has the necessary amount of concrete and that it is delivered on time. “One foundation, on average, requires 10 truckloads of concrete, and we might do three foundations a day, so all of that has to be coordinated,” he says. He estimates there will be more than 4,500 foundations built for the CapX2020 projects.

CapX2020 is using helicopters to string conductor wire for portions of the transmission lines projects. This requires a lot of coordination and major safety precautions, but Carlsgaard notes that benefits in the use of helicopters include:

  • Decreasing total project construction time;
  • Work can be done in remote or inaccessible locations;
  • Reducing environmental impact;
  • Minimizing right-of-way intrusion; and
  • Minimizing matting in sensitive areas. 

“This helps the projects be more efficient by speeding up construction a bit,” he says. “Also, with not as much equipment in the fields, farmers appreciate it because their land isn’t as affected.”

Approvals and Understanding

One of the main aspects of coordination in CapX2020 has been getting regulatory approval and permits for all of the work that must be done. The CapX2020 utilities were granted a Certificate of Need (CN) from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (MN PUC) on April 16, 2009, for three of the 345-kV projects, and a separate CN for the 230-kV line was approved on July 9, 2009. North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin regulators had to determine whether portions of the proposed lines in their states were needed. 

Each project also requires regulatory approval of each line’s specific route. A route permit application must be filed with the MN PUC for every project in Minnesota, proposing a preferred and alternate route. The MN PUC decides on the route based on recommendations from participating parties and landowners, complying with federal agencies and conducting a comprehensive process of public meetings and hearings. Similar review, permit and approval processes are required in North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. 

The next step for the utilities required getting permits and approvals from several federal agencies, such as the Rural Utilities Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. 

The federal agencies must conduct environmental reviews to ensure the projects comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. 

“Basically, you don’t build a transmission line if you can’t get a permit or regulatory approval,” Carlsgaard stresses. “We worked extensively with landowners and local, state and federal agencies. We probably held at least 350 public meetings and presentations about the projects. 

“We are constantly working to ensure people are involved and they understand what the project is and why we need to do it.”

Renewable Energy Priorities

An important need being addressed in this project is improving the region’s access to renewable sources of energy. The CapX2020 transmission lines will be key in helping to meet Minnesota’s Renewable Energy Standard (RES), which requires utilities to deliver 25 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025. Xcel Energy has its own mandate to delivery 30 percent by 2020, with 25 percent of the electricity coming from wind, and Wisconsin has a 10 percent mandate by 2015. 

Minnesota ranks ninth in the country for wind energy potential, according to Xcel Energy, while North Dakota South Dakota are in the top five. Much of this potential is located along the Buffalo Ridge area, which extends from Iowa through southern and southwest Minnesota and into the Dakotas. The Brookings County-Hampton 345-kV line will expand access to these wind resources by adding about 700 megawatts (MW) of capacity to the transmission grid. Combined with other recently completed and planned projects, that line has the potential to add nearly 2,000 MW of wind capacity to the grid. Minnesota estimates it needs about 5,000 MW of energy to meet the RES, which is one of the nation’s most aggressive renewable energy laws. 

“The priorities on this project were to increase local and community reliability and to look to the future with renewable energy, and these projects will be a big help in giving us the necessary capacity for renewable energy,” Carlsgaard says. “The CapX2020 projects and related multi-value projects cover a four-state region and will really facilitate wind development.”

‘Massive’ Undertaking

As all of the projects move along, there are still some challenges to overcome and paperwork to manage, but the CapX2020 partners are confident in the progress. At this time, each project stands as follows:

m Bemidiji-Grand Rapids 230-kV line – This transmission line was fully energized in September 2012, improving reliability for the Red River Valley, Bemidji, Grand Rapids and north central Minnesota. Crews began working on the project in January 2011 and about half of the line’s 535 structures were set by January 2012. The eastern segment of the line was energized in August 2012 and the western portion was energized the next month.

m Fargo-St. Cloud 345-kV line – Construction on this double-circuit-capable line began in 2012, and construction on the project continues in Minnesota and North Dakota. The project between St. Cloud and Alexandria, Minn., is scheduled to be energized in 2014. Work on the next phase between Alexandria and Fargo, N.D., is underway and on schedule to be energized in 2015. 

m Monticello-St. Cloud 345-kV line – This transmission line in Minnesota was energized and placed in service in December 2011. The 28-mile transmission line spans between the new Quarry Substation northwest of St. Cloud and the existing Monticello substation. 

m Brookings County-Hampton 345-kV line – Construction on this project began in April 2012 with easement acquisition from more than 900 landowners ongoing. Construction on the double-circuit-capable line, including nine substations,  is 50 percent complete. The first segments will be energized in early 2014. This project has an expected completion date of late 2014 or early 2015.

m Hampton-Rochester-La Crosse 345-kV line – Construction on this line began in early 2013 and involves several segments. A double-circuit-capable 345-kV line will run between Hampton and Pine Island, Minn., and continue across the Mississippi River near Alma, Wis. A single-circuit 345-kV line will be built in Wisconsin to the La Crosse area, and two new 161-kV lines will be built in Minnesota to serve the Rochester, Minn. metro area. Construction between Pine Island and the Mississippi River began in late summer 2013 and construction is expected to begin in Wisconsin in 2014.

m Big Stone South-Brookings County 345-kV line – This line was approved in December 2011 by MISO as a Multi-Value Project. CapX2020 filed a Facility Permit application with the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission in 2013. 

“We’re really learning a lot,” Carlsgaard stresses. “It’s important that the project teams are making sure construction is constantly meeting its goals regarding the schedule, and ensuring that the necessary materials are in the right place at the right time. There are a lot of questions they have to answer: Is there enough production capacity for building each structure and will they have them built on time? Do they have enough welders to build that many structures? With steel, rebar, anchor bolts and everything else they need, can the industry produce all that in a timely manner? This is a massive project, but it’s all coming together very well.”

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