corn and wind turbine
“Dual Harvest” by PXLated via flickr


Public Policy and Electricity Transmission Lines in Minnesota

by Roderick Squires

The visible landscape and the artifacts comprising it clearly reflect how we use the land to produce the goods and provide the services that we individually and collectively demand. As geographer Pierce Lewis remarked in his essay “Axioms for Reading the Landscape”:

The human landscape is our unwitting autobiography, reflecting our tastes, or aspirations, and even our fears, in tangible, visible form…. All our cultural warts and blemishes are there, and our glories, too; but above all, our ordinary day-to-day qualities are exhibited for anybody who wants to find them and knows how to look for them.[i]

Viewed through the same lens, the landscape also reflects how decisions having an impact on the land are made. As wilderness historian Roderick Nash stated, “its condition, rightly seen, reveals a society’s culture….”[ii]

I assert that the visible landscape is a political statement, and the artifacts that make up this landscape are constructed in a context defined by public policy. This context resolves, in a practical manner, how those artifacts that are contentious—those that provide benefits to some individuals at the expense of others or those that are proposed on the basis of questionable assumptions and demands—get built, and how controversial issues get resolved.

Electricity transmission lines, connecting generating stations to substations and to a network of distribution lines, ensure that residential, commercial, manufacturing, and industrial structures in which individuals live and work receive the necessary power to produce goods and provide services. There is no one living in Minnesota who is not affected by electricity. In fact, no one, at least in Minnesota, lives entirely “off the grid.” Individuals who may not use electricity directly for light and heat inevitably “use” electricity when consuming goods or services, many of which are produced through the use of electricity.

The presence of power lines has long been a source of acrimony, and any proposal to construct a new line or upgrade an existing one has elicited considerable acrimonious debate. Perhaps most well-known in Minnesota is the one described in the book Powerline, published in 1981 and co-authored by Paul Wellstone.[iii] But there have been several others, including the debates over the proposed construction of an additional generating unit at the Big Stone power plant in South Dakota that would have required additional transmission lines in western Minnesota[iv], and the debates over Xcel’s request to upgrade a transmission line in the southern portion of the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area.[v] It will also be interesting to follow the debates that will inevitably occur over Minnesota Power’s proposal to construct a 240-mile 500kV transmission line to carry electricity from Manitoba to the Iron Range.[vi]

But any argument about power line construction must be placed in a public policy context, because the decision to construct a line embodies an array of individual and collective decisions that have been made about how and where to produce, transport, and consume electricity. An important first step, then, in describing why such artifacts exist and understanding where they have been constructed is to follow the process through which the decision was made to build particular lines.[vii]

A Public Policy Framework

In the United States the roles and responsibilities of individuals, organizations of individuals—especially corporations—and governments have been the subject of incessant, often rancorous, debate, and as a consequence, have constantly changed.[viii] Presently, the social, economic, and political fabric of the country and the individual states is characterized by individual and corporate, or group, behaviors, which are in turn influenced by governments, comprehensively and out of necessity. Whether governments should influence behavior, why, and how, are the most important questions any democracy has to answer.[ix]

public policy
Figure 1: The route of public policy through society.[xii]

Importantly, individual and group behaviors and government influence all operate in a multi-scalar fashion: they exercise impact and influence on more than one level simultaneously. Moreover, what happens in one place at one time is instantly communicated to a larger audience and inevitably affects what happens subsequently elsewhere.

Government influences behavior through public policy via legislation, regulation, and judicial opinion that adhere to a written constitution[x] (Fig. 1). Such influence involves government establishing a goal (often in conflict with or incompatible with another goal) based upon a set of assumptions, then defining, promoting, and rewarding certain behaviors while explicitly or implicitly defining, prohibiting, and penalizing other behaviors. As the English jurist William Blackstone noted:

(E)very man, when he enters into a society, gives up part of his natural liberty, as the price of so valuable a purchase; and, in consideration of receiving the advantages of mutual commerce, obliges himself to conform to those laws which the community has thought proper to establish.[xi]

 Once implemented, this policy provides cues for future behavior, thus creating the environment in which individuals, groups, and government make decisions about their behaviors.[xiii]

But such policy, once implemented, also inevitably creates dissent.

Our legal problem arises at the point where capitalist economy and activist state collide. No longer a night-watchman, the state surveys the outcome of market processes and finds them wanting. Armed with a prodigious array of legal tools, it sets about improving upon the invisible hand—taxing here, subsidizing there, regulating everywhere. The results of all this motion may well be something that clearly redounds to the public good—a cleaner environment, a safer workplace, a decent home. Nonetheless, these welfare gains can rarely be purchased without social cost—though many gain, some will lose as a result of the new government initiative.[xiv]

In a nutshell: government policy simultaneously restricts some individual, corporate, and government behaviors and rewards other behaviors, thereby producing a framework of opportunities and limitations to all.

Obviously, the federal government wields the greatest influence over the widest range of activities throughout the United States[xv] The Minnesota state government exerts an influence over a smaller range of activities within the state boundaries.[xvi] The 3,672 local governments in Minnesota, operating under the statutory authority given them by the state legislature, exert an influence over an even smaller range of activities in fairly restricted areas.[xvii]

Transmission Lines in Minnesota

Figure 2: Transmission lines in the CapX202 project.[xix]

The CapX2020 project, initiated by 11 electric utilities in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, was designed to upgrade the electric transmission grid in Minnesota, expanding its capacity to meet several goals that include a projected future demand for electricity, the grid’s continued reliability, and Minnesota’s mandated Renewable Portfolio Standard.[xviii] The project represents the largest investment in new transmission lines in the upper Midwest in nearly 40 years. The lines, which will cover nearly 800 miles, include four 345kV transmission lines and one 230kV line (Fig. 2).

The 230kV line between a substation near Bemidji and a substation at the Clay Boswell power plant near Grand Rapids, designed to improve the reliability of electric services to the Red River valley, Bemidji, Grand Rapids and north central Minnesota, has already been completed.[xx] A portion of the Fargo-St. Cloud 345kV line, running 28 miles from a new substation northwest of St. Cloud and the existing Monticello substation, has also been finished.[xxi] Construction of the remainder of that line, designed to meet electricity growth in the region as well as to tap into the wind energy resources in southern and western Minnesota and the Dakotas, is under construction now and is scheduled to be completed in 2015.[xxii] Construction began on the Brookings-Hampton line in late 2012 and will be completed by 2014 or early 2015.[xxiii] No construction work has yet started on the Hampton-La Crosse line.[xxiv] 

The Public Policy Framework for Transmission Lines in Minnesota

Minnesota statutes give the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) jurisdiction over electric transmission projects.[xxv] The PUC’s mandate covers two related goals involved in planning and constructing the lines.

The first is a long-term goal, one that involves questions concerning issues much broader in scope than building specific lines. Despite recent reports that suggest Americans are buying less electricity, this first goal addresses how the state of Minnesota intends to ensure an adequate and reliable electricity supply to consumers in the future.[xxvi]

High-voltage power lines owned and operated by interconnected utilities transmit electricity from generation plants in Minnesota and elsewhere in the United States to substations, where it is then distributed to consumers in Minnesota. Importantly, these lines form part of a regional transmission grid operated in coordination with other transmission grids throughout the Upper Midwest and the Eastern United States, providing a reliable supply of power throughout the country.

To track transmission grid inadequacies, the Minnesota legislature in 2001 mandated a State Transmission Plan, requiring each company owning or operating electric transmission lines in Minnesota to submit a report to the PUC. The report must (1) list specific present and reasonably foreseeable future inadequacies in the transmission system in Minnesota; (2) identify alternative means of addressing each inadequacy listed; (3) identify general economic, environmental, and social issues associated with each alternative; and (4) provide a summary of public input related to the list of inadequacies and the role of local government officials and other interested persons in assisting to develop the list and analyze alternatives.[xxvii]

The second goal of the PUC’s mandate is short-term, and the one that concerns me here: How does a particular transmission project fit into the long-term planning effort? The PUC reviews all applications by utilities to construct or modify transmission lines. This review ensures not only that the lines are needed and that the routes selected for them are appropriate, but that there is adequate opportunity for public participation, including timely public notice and multiple opportunities for public comment.[xxviii]

The CapX2020 utilities needed to receive both a Certificate of Need and a Route Permit from the PUC for all of the lines (Figure 2) before beginning any construction.[xxix](Before the lines can be built, permits and approvals are also required from several federal agencies, including the Rural Utilities Service, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Federal agencies conduct environmental review projects to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act.)

The most debate, certainly the most contentious, occurred during the Certificate of Need process, during which individuals and groups opposed to the project challenged the utilities’ assumptions and projections underlying their application for a Certificate of Need and the long-term goals of the state in providing adequate and reliable electricity to consumers. The Route Permit process was far more local, concerned as it was with details about which parcels of land would be impacted by the construction of particular lines.[xxx] All of the documents submitted to the PUC in both processes for all the CapX2020 lines can be found on the PUC web site.[xxxi]

The Certificate of Need Process

To acquire a Certificate of Need, a utility must “show that demand for electricity cannot be met more cost effectively through energy conservation and load-management measures and unless the applicant has otherwise justified its need.”[xxxii] The legislature has directed the PUC to use various criteria in assessing need.[xxxiii],[xxxiv] Importantly, for the long-term goals for producing electricity, the statute provides:

The commission may not issue a certificate of need under this section for a large energy facility … that transmits electric power generated by means of a nonrenewable energy source, unless the applicant for the certificate has demonstrated to the commission’s satisfaction that it has explored the possibility of generating power by means of renewable energy sources and has demonstrated that the alternative selected is less expensive (including environmental costs) than power generated by a renewable energy source.[xxxv]

In August of 2006, Xcel Energy Co. provided the PUC with a Certificate of Need Notice Plan, notifying the PUC that the company would be applying for a Certificate of Need by the end of the year for the four new 345kV transmission lines shown in Figure 2, part of the company’s “planning efforts known as CapX2020 that identifies a comprehensive framework for new transmission infrastructure for the state of Minnesota.”[xxxvi] Two weeks later, Xcel filed the actual application, and there followed three years of contentious debate among the utilities, individuals, the Prairie Island Indian Community, and several nonprofit advocacy groups, all of which submitted testimony for or against the need for the lines[xxxvii] (To see the steps to the certificate of need process, click here.[xxxviii]).

Debate, however, was not limited to the question of need. It also questioned the process itself.[xxxix] The administrative law judge assigned to the case convened 19 public hearings in 2008 in cities along the anticipated corridors for the proposed transmission lines.[xl] Between July and September of 2008, the judge also convened 25 days of evidentiary hearings, then issued a report on February 27, 2009.[xli]

Two months later the PUC granted the required Certificate of Need for the four lines.[xlii] Interestingly, the PUC granted a Certificate of Need for one of them with the provision that it be designed to be capable of transmitting electricity from renewable sources. The PUC also authorized CapX2020 utilities to construct transmission towers with sufficient capacity for two transmission lines, although the utilities had no plans at the time to do so.[xliii]

Following the PUC’s decision, several nonprofit groups, NoCapX2020, United Citizens Task Force, and Citizens Energy Task Force, asked the PUC to reconsider, but in August 2009, the PUC issued an order that in essence denied the request.[xliv]

Perhaps fearing the PUC’s decision, the nonprofits had already challenged the PUC’s order granting the Certificate of Need to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, arguing that the “agency failed to consider newly discovered evidence, improperly approved an upsizing alternative, and acted arbitrarily in approving an environmental report.”[xlv] The court upheld the PUC’s decision, however, stating that the PUC had followed state law in assessing whether the projects were needed to meet future energy demand. The judges wrote: “Although the relators [the groups challenging the commission’s decision] have pointed to legitimate areas of environmental concern, after a review of the record, we are unable to conclude that the relators have shown that MPUC violated the law, acted beyond its authority, or made any arbitrary or capricious determination.”[xlvi]

The Route Permit Process

In its Certificate of Need order the PUC noted that the transmission lines were reviewed as a group but each separate line would require its own route permit.[xlvii] While the Certificate of Need process focused on whether the lines were  needed at all, the Route Permit process focused on where specific lines should be located. The debate became  far more local, inevitably so since the PUC was actually prohibited from considering the need for the lines, having already issued a Certificate of Need.[xlviii],[xlix]

The PUC is tasked in general with designating transmission line routes that “minimize adverse human and environmental impacts while insuring electric power system reliability and integrity and insuring that electric energy needs are met and fulfilled in an orderly and timely fashion.”[l] The CapX2020 utilities, with Certificate of Need in hand, applied to the PUC for both a route permit and approval of a particular route for each line.[li] The Route Permit process, then, focused on the details of each line, especially on the impact of the line on specific individuals and specific landowners.

The utilities were first required to give notification to local governments and consult with them, if necessary, before making the Route Permit application. Within 15 days of submitting an application for a route permit they must

publish notice of the application in a legal newspaper of general circulation in each county in which the site or route is proposed and send a copy of the application by certified mail to any regional development commission, county, incorporated municipality, and town in which any part of the site or route is proposed. … The applicant shall also send a notice of the submission of the application and description of the proposed project to each owner whose property is on or adjacent to any of the proposed sites for the power plant or along any of the proposed routes for the transmission line.[lii]

Route Permit applications were approved for all CapX2020 lines in Minnesota. Figure 4 shows key documents filed with the PUC by the utilities for the 230kV line between Bemidji and Grand Rapids.[liii] 

The Route Permit process, like the Certificate of Need process, included public hearings conducted by an administrative law judge at which anyone could appear and offer testimony and exhibits without becoming a formal party to the proceedings.[liv] The process required the Department of Commerce to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement, in which whether or not the project was needed could not be considered and for which no other state environmental review was required.[lv] The PUC was directed to use a variety of criteria in evaluating the proposed routes.[lvi]

Importantly, once the agency made a decision and issued a route permit, no local units of government could, under Minnesota statute, overrule that decision by exercising its statutory power to control land use. Minnesota Statutes (2013) 216E.10 subd.1 explicitly provides that such route permits “shall supersede and preempt all zoning, building, or land use rules, regulations, or ordinances promulgated by regional, county, local and special purpose government”[lvii]


To use the construction of transmission lines as an example of a political statement, i.e., the outcome of a public process established by government, is quite restrictive. But it is, I would suggest, the most appropriate way to begin analyzing the pervasive influence of governments on virtually all land use activities.

There are two advantages of this approach. The first is that stakeholders’ competing interests are clearly articulated and their debates resolved within a clearly identified framework and according to established procedures (although, of course, not to everyone’s satisfaction). Such a resolution yielded a collective judgment or decision without the decision being unduly influenced by the interests of those who would necessarily be negatively impacted by the lines. The second is that the record of these debates provides a wealth of data that can inform anyone not involved in the process.

Perhaps the disadvantage of an “institutional” approach to reading the landscape, however, is the single-layer process used with CapX2020: it treats the decisions that are made at a single scale—that of the state—rather than at multiple scales and thus neglects important considerations, including the environmental and landowner issues that face particular places impacted by the construction and physical presence of the lines. The CapX2020 projects generated far less, or at least less intense and less publicized, protest than those provoked in the 1970s over the state’s first high-voltage power line,[lviii] in part because public policy regarding transmission lines has changed since the 1970s. Today, there is a climate of public debate about all major issues and a requirement for environmental review of major activities that have the potential for significant physical impacts.

Perhaps the biggest change since the 1970s, however, is the abundance of information sources, from the government, from the utilities themselves, from nonprofit organizations that keep watch on the utilities and governments, from news media, and from individuals with concerns they wish to share with others. This abundance of information is, of course, due to the World Wide Web, which is an essential tool for all wishing to actively participate in the debates about land use activities.

— Roderick Squires is an associate professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Minnesota. He specializes in public policy, landscape in society, and public land history. 

[i] Lewis, Pierce. “Axioms for Reading the Landscape: Some Guides to the American Scene” in Donald Meinig (ed) Interpretations of Ordinary Landscapes. (New York, Oxford University Press, 1979) p. 23.

[ii] Nash, Roderick. The American Environment: Readings in the History of Conservation (Reading, MA. Addison-Wesley,1968) p.ix. 

[iii] Casper, Barry M.  and Paul D. Wellstone. Powerline: the first battle of America’s energy war. (Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1981).

[iv]See Western Area Power Administration “Big Stone II Power Plant and Transmission Project” online at

[v]See Northern States Power Company v City of Sunfish Lake (2003) online at and Power Line Task Force v Northern States Power (2004) online at


[vii]Such a step shows, in fact, that the decision was made on the basis of a process where all parties with a concern were heard.

[viii]Governments accept and carry out responsibilities, some of which might well conflict with other and previous responsibilities, which the private sector is not willing, or not able, to accept.

[ix] I restrict my comments to the United States because that is the focus of the essay. Of course the United State operates in a global context.

[x] Public policy – law – in the United States is voluminous, which some, with considerable self-interest, conflate with complexity. Undoubtedly public policy is replete with contradiction, ambiguity, and paradoxes, but on the whole it and various parts of it relating to particular human activities, for example, is understandable to any individual who wishes to understand it. Given the information tools that are widely available, there is little excuse for citizens not being aware of the opportunities to give voice in any debate about issues with which they are concerned. However, just because everyone may have a voice, not all voices will be heeded. We are a nation of law, but majority must rule however that majority is fashioned and no matter what our personal preferences might be.

[xi] William Blackstone. Commentaries of the Law of England. A Facsimile of the First Edition of 1765-1769 (1979) vol. 1 p. 121

[xii]Public policy is based upon an understanding of the way in which both the natural environment and human society work, and how the goal of a particular policy will be achieved. A full description of public policy requires a description of how statutes get enacted, rules promulgated, and judicial opinions made. A full description of public policy also requires a description of how individuals, organizations, and even governments themselves help formulate the consensus necessary for those statutes, rules, and opinions and subsequently how they react to public policy.

[xiii] Policy is implemented when the legislative branch has passed legislation that is either not challenged in the courts or has amended legislation in response to court challenges; when the executive branch has promulgated the rules to carry the legislation into effect, rules that have not been challenged in the courts or which have been modified in the light of such challenges.   

[xiv] Bruce A. Ackerman Private Property and the Constitution. (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1977) p.1

[xv] The current extent of the United States government influence is described in the United States Code, the Code of Federal Regulations, and the opinions of the federal courts.

[xvi] The current extent of the influence of the Minnesota government is described in the Minnesota Statutes, the Minnesota Rules, and the opinions of the state courts.

[xvii] The number of governments is taken from the Census of Governments online at accessed January 15, 2014. Local governments have been called “creatures of the state” by the courts because they derive their authority from state statutes.

[xviii] The CapX2020 utilities include three cooperatives that serve rural areas in Minnesota: Dairyland Power Cooperative, Great River Energy, and Minnkota Power Cooperative; five municipal utilities that serve smaller cities in the state; the Central Minnesota Municipal Power Agency, Rochester Public Utilities, Missouri River Energy Services, Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency, and WPPI Energy; and three investor-owned utilities that provide electricity in at least two states: Xcel Energy, Minnesota Power, and Otter Tail Power Company.

[xix] CapX2020 transmission line projects online at accessed January 15, 2014

[xx] Online at  accessed January 15, 2014. See also CapX2020 Transmission line construction process online at accessed January 15, 2014  

[xxi] Online at accessed January 15, 2014  

[xxii] Online at accessed January 15, 2014   

[xxiii] Online at accessed January 15, 2014  

[xxiv] Online at accessed January 15, 2014  

[xxv] See the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. Utility Regulation. Online at accessed January 15, 2014 and Minn. Stat. (2013) 216B, 216E

[xxvi] “Americans are buying less electricity. That’s a big problem for utilities” (Washington Post, December 23, 2013.) Online at, accessed January 15, 2008

[xxvii] MN Laws 2001 c 212 art 7 s 30 now coded in Minn. Stat (2013) 216B.2425 subd.2. Some companies own transmission lines only and do not either produce or distribute energy. See also Minnesota Rules 7848. See “Upper Midwest High Voltage Transmission Projects 1967-2007” online at accessed January 15, 2014, and “Transmission planning through construction: A decade-long process” online at accessed January 15, 2014.

[xxviii] “Minnesota Regulatory Process for High Voltage Transmission Lines,” online at, accessed January 15, 2014.

[xxix] Minn Stat. 216B.243 and Minnesota Rules 7849, 7829, 7849.0010-0110, and 1405 govern the process, which starts when the utilities file an application.

[xxx] Minn. Stat. (2013) 216E.10 subd.5

[xxxi] Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. “Siting & Routing.” Accessed January 15, 2014.

[xxxii] Minn. Stat. (2013) 216B.243 subd. 3. The PUC holds an annual hearing to inform the public of matters relating to the siting and construction of large electric power generating plants and routing of high voltage transmission lines and to afford interested persons an opportunity to comment.

[xxxiii] Minnesota Rules 7829.250 describes the Certificate of Need filings and Minnesota Rules 7829.2550 describes “Notice plans for high voltage transmission lines”. See also “The Certificate of Need Process” online at, accessed January 15, 2014 and accessed January 15, 2014.

[xxxiv]  Minn. Stat. (2013) 216B.243 subd.3

[xxxv] Minn. Stat. (2013) 216B.243 subd. 3a: “For purposes of this subdivision, ‘renewable energy source’ includes hydro, wind, solar, and geothermal energy and the use of trees or other vegetation as fuel.”

[xxxvi] Minnesota Rules 7829.2550. The documents considered by the PUC and its decisions can be found in Docket 06-1115. To find the document, id. 3218535, online follow the steps described in Figure 3. Also see “Project: CapX2020 Transmission Lines Project.” Online at January 15, 2014.

[xxxvii] The nonprofits were Fresh Energy, Institute for Self-Reliance, Izaak Walton League, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, NoCapX2020, North American Water Office, United Citizens Action Network, Wind on the Wires, and Windustry.

[xxxviii] Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. “Project: CapX2020 Transmission Lines Project,” supra note 35.

[xxxix] Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. Docket 06-1115, supra note 34. The PUC Staff Briefing Papers, in which the staff to the PUC outlined the process to date, provide useful summaries.

[xl] Moorhead, Fergus Falls, Alexandria, Melrose, Clearwater, Marshall, Redwood Falls, Arlington, New Prague, Lakeville, Cannon Falls, Winona, and Rochester.

[xli]Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. Docket 06-1115. Supra note 34, document id. 5791590.

[xlii] Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. Docket 06-1115. Supra note 34, document id.20095-37752-01.

[xliii]Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. Docket 06-1115. Supra note 34, document id.20098-40627-01.

[xliv]Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. Docket 06-1115 Supra note 34, document id.20098-40627-01.

[xlv] “In the Matter of the Application of Great River Energy, Northern States Power Company (d/b/a Xcel Energy) and Others for Certificates of Need for the CapX 345-kV Transmission Projects.” Unpublished opinion online at p. 2. accessed January 15, 2014.

[xlvi] Id. p. 6.

[xlvii] Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. Docket 06-1115 Supra note 34, document id.20095-37752-01.

[xlviii] Minn. Stat. (2013) 216E.10 subd.5

[xlix] All of the documents submitted to the PUC in both processes for all the CapX2020 lines can be found on the PUC web site. Individuals can also follow a project by signing up for email notification when documents are filed.

[l] Minn. Stat. (2013) 216E.02 subd.1.

[li] Utilities were required to identify at least two routes and designate the preferred. Minn. Stat. (2013) 216E.03 subd.2 ; Minn. Rules (2013) Part 7850.

[lii] Minn. Stat. (2013) 216E.03 subd.4

[liii] Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. Docket 07-1327. Supra note 34. See also CapX2020 fact sheet online at Accessed January 15, 2014.

[liv] Minn. Stat. (2013) 216E.03 subd.6

[lv] Minn. Stat. (2013) 216E.10 subd.5

[lvi] Minn. Stat. (2013) 216E.10 subd.7

[lvii] Minn. Stat. (2013) 216E.10 subd.1

[lviii]Casper, Barry M. Supra note 3