40 years later, wind replaces giant power plant

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The announcement last week that Great River Energy plans to shut down a huge coal-fired electricity-generating plant in the middle North Dakota came about 40 years too late.

The Maple Grove-based co-op announced it will close Coal Creek Station — one of the Upper Midwest’s largest power plants – late in 2022. It will be replaced to a great extent with new wind farms, including four in Minnesota. Stearns Electric is one of Great River’s 28 member cooperatives.

When Coal Creek, which was conveniently built next to a coal mine, shuts down, Great River expects about two-thirds of its energy to come from wind turbines.

That’s a big change from the mid-1970s, when Great River Energy’s forerunner, UPA/CPA, convinced state regulators the Coal Creek plant was needed to supply an increasing demand for electricity and the co-op needed a giant high-voltage power line running across 170 miles of Minnesota to supply users.

When the co-op and state regulators unveiled the plan, at first only a small group of environmentalists offered opposition. Initial public hearings were poorly attended, but as more details emerged, the opposition grew.

Opponents charged the plant was unnecessary and that solar and wind offered environmentally friendly options. The Green New Deal was not a thing then and only a small group of scientists warned of climate change caused by fossil fuel.

Farmers soon joined the environmentalists to block the line. The farmers said their land was chosen for the line because it was viewed as less valuable than running it along I-94 or through wildlife areas. They objected to the line cutting across their cultivated fields and argued the high voltage posed a health risk to them and their animals.

By 1977, protests sprang up around surveying and construction sites as the protestors confronted work crews.  The story soon became big news.

I covered the initial protests when I was photo editor at the St. Cloud Times. Only a few other journalists paid attention. A WCCO-TV crew and sometimes a reporter and photographer from both Minneapolis papers…the Tribune and the Star….would show up. Otherwise it was just me and my Times colleagues Mark Pearson, Dave Peters or Maureen McCarthy.

The protests and confrontations made for strong visuals, but I also needed patience. The best moments popped up quickly and usually unexpectedly, so I spent lots of time just standing around, talking with farmers, deputies and construction workers.

The growing protests, and sporadic violence, soon overwhelmed the small county sheriff’s departments in Stearns, Pope and Grant counties. In January 1978, Gov. Rudy Perpich mobilized 200 State Patrol troopers – dubbed Rudy’s Rangers by the protestors – to protect the construction sites for the 180-foot-high towers.

By now, instead of a handful of journalists, hundreds of reporters from around the world converged on Stearns County.

One of my more memorable photos happened as protestors, loaded in a manure spreader, threatened a group of troopers by swinging baseball bats. After several passes, the troopers decided they had enough, and at the next pass, Maced the protestors. A few days later, protestors retaliated by spraying troopers with anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer that can cause chemical burns and even death.

After this attack, which was widely criticized, the farmers resorted to nonviolent protests including covering themselves with manure before being arrested – another moment that created a great photo.

On March 5, more than 8,000 people marched from Lowry to Glenwood in Pope County to protest. My photo from the March for Justice ended up on the cover of Paul Wellstone’s book, “Powerline: The First Battle of the Energy War.”

I spent a good deal of time during four or five years on the story with an interesting cast of characters – George Crocker, Gloria Woida, Virgil Fuchs, Alice Tripp, Larry Long. At the time, I didn’t think I’d outlive the power line.

I’d like to hear what the folks who fought the line – those who are still alive – think now.

It only took 40 years to prove they were right.

Author: Mike Knaak

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