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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Big Stone II Transmission Still Humming... But Wind Kills China?

As always, things are complicated....

An eager reader sends this story from the People's Republic of Minnesota Public Radio saying that we greenies may have our cake and eat it too. The Big Stone II coal-fired power plant is dead (yes, I'm still gloating), but the utilities behind the failed project are still see building 225 miles of power lines, from Big Stone City to Morris and Granite Falls, as a potential money-maker:

Last month, the Big Stone power plant group sent a letter to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. The utilities told the PUC that even though they will not build the coal plant, they would still like to see the power lines go up. For the partners' it could be a way to recoup some of the investment they just abandoned.

"We have easements and a route siting permit in place that they could use," said Mark Hanson, Big Stone's spokesman. "Another entity could purchase those."

...The price tag to build the lines is estimated at about $230 million. That's a lot of money, but advocates say the payoff could be even bigger.

"Well, it's got huge potential benefits," said Patrick Moore, executive director of CURE, an environmental group based in Montevideo. "The wind that blows over this region is a potential wealth generator for the local people."

...The proposed transmission lines were so potentially valuable they led to a wind-energy gold rush in the area. By one estimate, at least 1000 megawatts of wind energy are in the planning stages in the region. That's enough power to serve more than 300,000 homes.

And, it's more than double the electricity the Big Stone II coal plant would have generated [Mark Steil, "Crucial Power Lines Meant for Big Stone II Still an Option," Minnesota Public Radio, 2009.12.16].

Hmm... not only did capitalism save us from another big dirty coal-fired plant, but capitalism might also build those power lines after all. The market is a wonderful thing....

...But not everyone is so eager to see wind power expand. Another eager reader sends this report from the PBS NewsHour, which finds us greenies wrecking Chinese water supplies with our insatiable hunger for green-power magnets:

Lindsey Hilsum: Green campaigners love wind turbines, but the permanent magnets used to manufacture a 3-megawatt turbine contain some two tons of rare earth. The head of China's Rare Earth Research Institute shows me one of those permanent magnets. He's well aware of the issues.

Zhao Zengqi, Baotou Rare Earth Research Institute: The environmental problems include air emissions with harmful elements, such as fluorine and sulfur, wastewater that contains excessive acid, and radioactive materials, too. China meets 95 percent of the world's demand for rare earth, and most of the separation and extraction is done here. So, the pollution stays in China, too [Lindsey Hilsum, "Are Rare Earth Minerals Too Costly for Environment?" PBS NewsHour, 2009.12.14].

Just you wait: the oil industry and GOP naysayers will now adopt environmentalism—save the Chinese forests!—to fight... environmentalism.

Of course, the issue here may be not so much the environmental impact—China doesn't have the strongest environmental regulations to start with, and many of the problem mines are operating illegally—as Chinese domination of the market. We might kick our addiction to Middle East oil only to end up addicted to Chinese rare-earth deposits.

Ah, but the difference here: we import oil, burn it up, and have to buy more. As we buy up wind turbines and iPods and Prii, we accumulate a huge stockpile of neodymium, lanthanum, and other rare-earth metals. Pretty soon, as those products start to turn over, we will have a massive supply of recyclable rare earth metals. Recycling won't meet all of our needs, but it will make it easier for us to fill the gap with rare-earth metals from other suppliers, just in case the Chinese decide they don't like doing business any more.

Of course, if you're really worried about China controlling the rare-earth market, you should get on board with ACESA and other energy security initiatives that will drive demand for green technology and make it more profitable for American companies to create mining and manufacturing jobs right here in the U.S.A.


  1. I would not call myself a GOP naysayer, just want to make the point that there is no free lunch. Is it okay for the Chinese to have their water and land destroyed? The PBS video shows a Chinese farmer talking about this.
    We feel virtuous over here about our greenness built on the backs of these people and that is okay? This material can be recycled, but it is still finite. I am no fan of boxcars of coal crossing the country, but it seems far worse to exploit people who will get little, if any benefit from their rare earth resource to satisfy our vanity.
    I don't even want a microwave in my home, why should i be forced to have a huge transmission line floating over my property if i do not want it? What about the factories that are required to build these things? What about the resources needed, the humongous amount of transportation? The blight? The possible erosion on unstable land, such as ridges? Our experience s with develpers has not been positive in this area. Knock on nearly any door around here and someone will tell you how they have been lied to and threatened with condemnation of land, forced stuff in the ROWs, etc.
    Nothing has no downside, no side effects. The sooner we face that, the sooner we can do some real work on energy.
    I keep reading about various technologies being developed to harness wind. Keep working on it, and don't waste millions of $$$ on stuff that will hopefully be obsolete by the time it is built.
    Joelie Hicks

  2. "Hmm... not only did capitalism save us from another big dirty coal-fired plant, but capitalism might also build those power lines after all. The market is a wonderful thing...."


    You are ideologically wrong here. The current state of the energy market is heavily interfered with by government. The Public/private nature is called fascism, not free-market capitalism.

  3. Fact is, Steve, the main contention people have been making is that environmentalists killed both Big Stone II and the transmission lines. Neither claim has been substantiated... and your continued bleating of ideological boilerplate provides no such evidence.

  4. Cory,

    You argue & cheer for the government to destroy oil $ coal through regulations and then create wind energy. Now you want proof?


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