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CU Powerline & Activism



Organization Begins

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    In the 1970s, cooperative utilities in Minnesota and the Dakotas had little energy generating capacity and relied heavily on hydro-power from a series of Bureau of Reclamation dams on the Missouri River.  As they projected their exponential growth in demand, it appeared that additional sources of supply would be needed.  [1] With backing from the REA office in Washington, the co-ops decided to try lignite, a low rank, consolidated, brownish-black coal found in North Dakota. [2] The electricity generated at the plant would be transported via a High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) transmission system eastward 436 miles to customers on the outskirts of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul in Minnesota. [1]

     High-voltage transmission lines are used to transmit electric power over relatively long distances, usually from a central generating station to main substations. They are also used for electric power transmission from one central station to another for load sharing. High voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines are made of high voltage (between 138 and 765 kilovolts) overhead and underground conducting lines of either copper or aluminum. You have probably seen the oil-rig-esque towers, ever-present in rural Minnesota. One of the key concerns in transmission of electricity is power loss in transmission lines which is dissipated as heat due to the resistance of the conductors. [3]

     Despite the length of the line and the immense number of citizens impacted, Pope County, a primarily agricultural county in Western Minnesota, as well as a couple other counties in Western Minnesota, led the way with protests.  But before the farmers and other citizens impacted by the power-line even knew about the plans, years had passed since its planning had begun. Here is a timeline of events which occurred before citizens were involved:

  • June 1972 – CPA and UPA, together with representatives from the REA met to discuss the feasibility of jointly providing for the future power and energy requirements of both organizations
  • November 1972 - Burns and McDonnell of Kansas City, Missouri, was selected to make the feasibility study.
  • June 1973 – The Mid-continent Area Reliability Coordination Agreement (MARCA) Council approved the CU project transmission proposal.
  • July 1973 – Burns and McDonnell completed the feasibility study for the CU project, along with environmental analysis of the plant.
  • September 1973 – Commonwealth Associates, under subcontract to Burns and McDonneell, completed the environmental analysis for the power-line.
  • November 1973 – The formal loan application was submitted to the REA.  Black and Veatch of Kansas City, Missouri, was selected to be the consulting engineer for the design and construction management of the CU transmission system.
  • February 1974 – The CU loan application was approved by the REA.
  • March 1974 – Contract for two turbine generators was awarded, $28,700,000; contract for two steam generators (boilers) was awarded, $76,000,000.
  • May 1974 – Contract for the HVDC terminals was awarded, $54,000,000.
  • June 1974 – Site for Dickenson substation was acquired.
  • July 1974 – Site for Coal Creek generating station was acquired; water permit for Coal Creek was granted by the North Dakota State Water Commission.
  • September 1974 – REA designated the Federal Financing Bank as the source of financing to supplement direct REA loans; contract for power-line conductor wire was awarded, $15,250,000.
  • October 1974 – Coal agreement was signed with North American Coal, resulting in the creation of Falkirk Mining Company, contract for site clearing and earthwork was awarded, $1,200,000.
  • February 1975 – Contract for power station structural steel was awarded, $23,800,000.
  • April 1975 – Application was submitted to the EQC for corridor designation.
  • May 1975 – Construction started at the power station; contracts for steel towers were awarded, $12,400,000. [1]

     This is a typical way new technology is introduced.  Planners, looking ahead, conceive projects that promote institutional objectives.  Experts are hired to decide on the technical details and to write the required reports.  Monies, public and/or private, are acquired from sympathetic sources.  These monies are invested and the project is underway.  Only then does word reach beyond the tight circle of planners and benefactors.  [1] And the hearings and logistics took time even after the public was made aware, but the inertia of the project kept it afloat. Late into the procedures, General Manager of CPA, Phil Martin, said, “I know you may not like the line and I realize you don’t want it built, but we have gone through almost two years of state hearings on the matter; there were scores of information meetings and several court cases and now the matter has been decided.  The state says we have the right to build the line and our one million members need electricity it will bring to Minnesota.  It must be built.” [1] With the signing of the coal agreement in October 1974, the final hurdle was cleared and the CU project was underway. 

     Today, Coal Creek Station uses about 22,000 tons of lignite per day, or about 7.5 to 8.0 million tons per year, to generate electricity for Great River Energy’s customers.  Inside the station, high pressure steam drives the advanced multi-state turbines to power the generators. Water is turned into steam as it flows through tubes that form the walls of the plant’s massive furnaces (205 feet tall). The steam is superheated to a temperature higher than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and then it is released as high-pressure steam into the turbines. [4]

[1] Wellstone, Paul, and Barry M. Casper. Powerline: The First Battle of America's Energy War. Mineapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
[2] "LigniteFigure." Arkansas Geological Survey April 2008 <>.
[3] "High Voltage Transmission Lines." Energy Dictionary April 2008 <>.
[4] "Coal Creek Station." Great River Energy April 2008 <>.
[5] "Pope County Profile." May 2008 < >.

Figure 4: A chunk of lignite [2]


Figure 5: View of a High Voltage Direct Current transmission tower from below.

Figure 6: Location of Pope County in MN. [5]

Figure 7: Coal Creek Generating Station in ND. [4]

Last updated:  5/6/2008


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