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In advancing clean energy, MN coalition wants power lines along highways

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Friday, March 1, 2024   

By Frank Jossi for Energy News Network.
Broadcast version by Mike Moen for Minnesota News Connection reporting for the Joyce Foundation-Public News Service Collaboration

A coalition of labor and environmental groups is putting its support behind perennial Minnesota legislation meant to lift a barrier to building power lines in the rights-of-way of federal highways in the state.

NextGen Highways is a national collaboration that promotes co-location of utility infrastructure in existing highway corridors as a way to accelerate expansion of the electric grid.

The concept has widespread public support, according to the group's polling, but it also faces various legal, financial, and technical obstacles across the country.

"What we're trying to do in Minnesota - and in states across the country - is to identify barriers and work with our coalition partners to develop strategies to overcome those barriers," said Randy Satterfield, executive director of NextGen Highways.

One example in Minnesota is a state law requiring the Minnesota Department of Transportation to pay utilities if they are forced to move any assets, such as poles or towers, in federal highway rights-of-way. A pair of bills (House Bill 3900, Senate Bill 3949) would shift those costs to utilities instead, making it consistent with existing rules for state highway corridors.

Without that change, the state won't allow transmission projects to be built in its portion of federal highway rights-of-way. State transportation officials have proposed such legislation multiple times since 2012, but the bills have never succeeded amid opposition from utilities.

Many transmission projects already follow highway corridors, Satterfield said. They include several announced last year by MISO, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, Inc. Three of those projects cover portions of Minnesota and follow highways for parts of their routes.

Not all transmission lines that share routes with highways are located within the public right-of-way. Some are built on adjacent private property instead, which still requires negotiations with hundreds of individual owners. When developers have the option of placing towers or burying lines within the public right-of-way, it can significantly streamline a project.

With clean energy's escalating growth trajectory, more solar and wind developers will request permission to build projects and power lines in rural communities, Satterfield predicted.

"I think we owe it to (communities) to at least consider utilizing existing linear infrastructure, like highways and interstates, for the transmission infrastructure," he said.

'This is a kind of low-hanging fruit'

Still, transmission developers wanting to take these routes often run into obstacles. Many state departments of transportation still recall a federal restriction, since rescinded, that did not allow transmission in federal highway rights-of-way, he said. Other states have no culture of allowing highway rights-of-way to co-locate with transmission.

NextGen Highways formed to advocate for transmission in highway corridors and to encourage states to remove any barriers to that goal. Minnesota is the first state where it has launched a state coalition to advance the concept.

"Transmission congestion is the biggest hurdle that we have to overcome to reach our 100% energy goals and to get more renewables and other forms of energy on the grid," said George Damian, government affairs director for Clean Energy Economy Minnesota, a nonprofit that is part of the coalition. "This is a kind of a low-hanging fruit. These rights-of-way owned by the state can be utilized for transmission."

Utilities, lawmakers and stakeholders continue to discuss the legislation. Theo Keith, Xcel Energy's spokesperson, said the utility has been "encouraged by the early conversations we've had with lawmakers and other stakeholders." Xcel has proposed hundreds of miles of transmission lines in road corridors and often shares easements with the transportation department, he said.

Keith cited the CapX2020 project as an example of Xcel and other utilities building a major transmission corridor adjacent to the Interstate 94 right-of-way.

"Building new transmission lines is critical to meeting our clean energy goals and those of the states in which we operate, including Minnesota's 2040 benchmark," he said.

Overcoming barriers

Minnesota can look to its neighbor in Wisconsin for an example of how highway corridors could be used for transmission. That state passed a law 20 years ago to make federal and state highway rights-of-way a priority for siting transmission. Satterfield, who once worked for a transmission company in Wisconsin, said the state's utilities built more than 200 miles of transmission projects on federal highways.

Wisconsin did not ask utilities to move poles or other assets on any of the projects, he said. Wisconsin's Department of Transportation coordinates and plans projects with utilities to avoid potential problems, such as highway lane expansion that could encroach on transmission lines.

In addition to changing the Minnesota statute on utility colocation on federal roads, the NexGen Highway Coalition wants the Legislature to consider a siting priorities law. The law requires utilities to consider existing transportation corridors, such as highways and railways, before opting for greenfield development.

Minnesota Department of Transportation Strategic Partnerships Director Jessica Oh said the agency had put forth five to six legislative proposals since 2012 to repeal the language in the statute regarding utility infrastructure near federal highways and will support continued efforts. Utilities opposed the measure because of the additional expense they might incur in projects, she said.

A change to the state law was also suggested in a report to the legislature based on permitting reform discussions held by the Public Utilities Commission, she said.

In studying Wisconsin's experience, the department learned the importance of early coordination with clean energy developers and utilities "is key to the success of the whole process." Minnesota transportation staff have conducted early planning sessions involving aerial encroachments on state highways with utility partners.

Oh said the department's "highest concern" around utility infrastructure has always been safety. Should the legislation pass, the transportation department will continue to work closely with utilities, especially since power lines will become instrumental in moving electric vehicles on highways.

Oh added Minnesota is among 11 states selected by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and the Transportation Research Board's National Cooperative Highway Research Program for a "moonshots" program for state departments of transportation. Oh leads the initiative in Minnesota to co-locate more transmission and broadband in highway corridors.

"We have a stake in this because of the electrification of transportation," Oh said. "I tend to think our fates are intertwined in energy and transportation."

Great Plains Institute convenes NextGen Highways, which partners with the Center for Rural Affairs, Clean Energy Economy Minnesota, Conservative Energy Forum, Fresh Energy, Laborers' International Union of North America-Minnesota and North Dakota, Mechanical Contractors Association, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and the National Audubon Society.

Frank Jossi wrote this article for Energy News Network.

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