Near Birchdale looking north

Contractors cleared vegetation from portions of the Great Northern Transmission Line this past winter. This is a portion of the route near Birchdale, looking north. Construction is expected to begin late fall and continue into winter. The line must be in service by June 2020.

Progress in developing the Great Northern Transmission Line is on schedule, according to representatives of Minnesota Power.

Jim Atkinson, environmental siting and permitting manager for Minnesota Power, and Amy Rutledge, manager of corporate communications, said pre-construction activities, including clearing vegetation, were conducted this past winter on “segment 2,” which is the most remote part of the project and runs just west of Baudette, and east and south to a point where the route crosses U.S. Highway 71, measuring about 55 to 57 miles.

The 220-mile, 500 kv power line will deliver hydropower generated by the Manitoba Hydro gas company from Manitoba, through a portion of Koochiching County, to a substation near Grand Rapids.

The line must be completed and in service by June 2020, said Atkinson.

Minnesota Power proposed in February 2012 to build the transmission line, it said, to bring clean, emission-free energy into Minnesota, meet growing energy demands, and increase system reliability.

The line will eventually stretch through about 89 miles of Koochiching. The second part of the project will start next winter when winter roads can be constructed, Atkinson said.

This past winter was a short one for working on the project, said Atkinson. Winter was nearly ending by the time regulatory approvals were in place, however he said the contractors made great headway clearing, in most cases, a 200-foot right of way. In areas with brushy wetlands, about one-third of that 200-foot right away is cleared.

“We feel pretty good about being on the time line,” he told The Journal Wednesday.

Meanwhile, obtaining easements through private property along the entire route is about 70 percent completed, he said.

The route was selected with input from property owners, residents, local governments, federal and state lawmakers and regulatory agencies in dozens of meetings held in the areas where proposed routes were considered.

“Through this entire process, Minnesota Power has really put great emphasis on getting feedback and input and that is really how we got to the ultimate route permit,” Rutledge said.

Atkinson said the process of including governments and stakeholders that used to determine the route was unprecedented. He pointed to the support by the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, which was important. And he said landowners were “the biggest ingredient” in selecting the route.

Rutledge said those who took part in the meetings didn’t just attend to voice concerns, but helped ultimately determine the best place to put the line.

“We recognize not everyone agrees, and we continue to negotiate with landowners on easements in the hope we can still reach agreement on that,” she said. “Given the time line of the project, we need to keep moving ahead and we’re already 70 percent of the way there, as far as easements.”

“We took literally two years and had thousands of conversations with landowners before we ever submitted a route permit,” Atkins said. “We are always there and ready to engage when (property owners) are, and with any luck we will engage with all and come to good agreements on easements.”

The pre-construction activities conducted this past winter brought a few unexpected situations. “Even those challenging circumstances, with the right crews in place, we were able to make good progress,” Atkinson said.

In addition to the contractors, an internal team is overseeing the work, said Atkinson, noting that the contractors in place have a lot of experience working on similar projects.

Meanwhile, Koochiching County should expect an economic boost this fall and into the winter when staging and then construction takes place.

“There will be hundreds of contract employees out there, renting places to stay, getting fuel, food and everything else from local establishments,” Atkinson said.

In addition, Koochiching County and the school districts within it will benefit from annual property taxes, estimated at $40,000 to $60,000 per mile, noted Rutledge, who added that more information on the economic impact of the project is available on the Great Northern Transmission Line website.

This summer, Atkinson said right of ways will continue to be designated and excavating and “earth work” will begin late summer and early fall at some substations and lay down areas.

“That will allow us to take in material for the line, and construction will start in earnest with freezing temperatures when we can make ice roads again,” he said. “We’re moving forward, on schedule and there should be a lot of activity this winter.”