Prairie Dogged

A fake flyer making the rounds at the Capitol suggests NSP wants to pay itself millions in fines for failing to move nuclear waste off Prairie Island. Lawmakers say the parody is eerily accurate.

At first glance the brochure making the rounds at the Capitol lately looks like most of the circulars that fall out of your Northern States Power bill every month. "Trust NSP to meet the public interest," reads the heading that kicks off a brief history of how NSP won the right to store nuclear waste on Prairie Island next to the Mississippi River. The pamphlet goes on to describe how in 1994 the Legislature reluctantly agreed to allow NSP to store casks of waste on the island through this year. If the spent nuclear fuel was still there on January 1, 1999, NSP would begin paying a hefty yearly fine for each waste cask left on the island.

Then the pamphlet delivers the kicker: "Some lawmakers now say that... the penalty funds... should actually be paid by NSP to the State of Minnesota [emphasis theirs]! This is an outrageous taking of stockholder profits." The fines were to be used to develop alternative sources of power, the flyer continues, sources the Legislature "forced on NSP." Therefore, "fairness demands NSP keep and decide the use of penalty funds."

The brochure even bears NSP's Web address--right down next to the tiny type that identifies it not as an NSP position paper, but as "a public comment on NSP policy by Corporate Word Jam."

When NSP administrators came across one of the guerrilla flyers, they immediately complained to both the attorney general's office and to Sen. John Marty (DFL-Roseville) about the fraudulent circular, but they're not pressing their case very loudly.

Perhaps that's because whoever the tricksters behind Word Jam are, they nailed the issue dead-on: Four years ago when the Legislature gave NSP the right to store up to 17 casks of nuclear waste on the Mississippi floodplain, it wrote a law stipulating that if the waste remains on Prairie Island past 1998, NSP must deposit $500,000 a year per cask into a fund to pay for development of renewable energy sources. But the law didn't specify where the account would be kept or who would oversee it.

Now with the deadline for paying its first fine drawing near and no potential new home for the waste, lawmakers say NSP is back at the statehouse quietly suggesting that under the vague 1994 law the utility itself was meant to control the penalty money. After all, the Legislature had ordered the electric company to find more environmentally sounds means of providing power, the reasoning goes.

Sen. Janet Johnson (DFL-North Branch) feels it would be "very inappropriate" for NSP to oversee the account. "I can't imagine that all that language was put in place simply for an internal account" to help NSP pay itself back for buying power from renewable sources, she says. The idea was to extract payment from NSP for keeping nuclear waste on the island and provide some assurance that the waste would be moved within five years. Johnson would prefer that up to $8.5 million a year raised by the fines be used to assist smaller companies in developing renewable energy technologies. She and seven other legislators last month sent a letter to Senate Electric Energy Task Force Chairman Steve Novak, a Republican from New Brighton, asking him to address the issue over the summer while the legislature is not in session.

The same 1994 legislation that created the fines ordered NSP to begin providing at least 425 megawatts of wind-generated power by June 1, 1999. If the company doesn't come up with the cleaner power, whether it generates it itself or buys wind-generated power from another supplier, it could lose its right to store any new waste on Prairie Island, the law says. NSP has chosen to meet this mandate by buying power from a number of smaller companies.

A member of the Minnesota Wind Association, John Dunlop explains that wind power, like other forms of renewable energy, is most costly during its development stages. Although they operate virtually for free once installed, rooftop solar systems and commercial wind turbines require hefty up-front investments, he says. Any funds generated by fines, he and other electric entrepreneurs say, would go a long way toward helping develop alternative energy sources to generate power that, in the end, might get sold back to NSP.

"NSP likes to talk about the millions of dollars it has invested in renewable energy. If there ever was a misstatement, this is it," says Dunlop. "The expense is on the part of the developer." He believes that the Legislature intended the fund be used to help build the kinds of businesses that belong to the Wind Association, and that lawmakers certainly didn't intend for NSP to pay its fine to itself.

Within the next two months Minnesota is slated to become the second-largest generator of wind power in the nation, following California, Dunlop says. And even though suppliers could still use the capital generated from the fines, development of wind-generated power sources is farther along than other alternative energies.

Ralph Jacobson is president of Innovative Power Systems, a St. Paul start-up that designs solar devices. Given enough R&D money, he envisions a day when power companies will be able to depend on solar systems on residential roofs to take the strain off power plants during high-demand summer months, for example.

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