Minnesota by the numbers: The nation's biggest importer of electricity

class=img_thumbleft>A few weeks ago, Ken Bradley was poking around one of the more obscure corners of the Department of Energy website when he came across an

eye-popping table

. Minnesota, Bradley discovered after scrolling through the chart, is the United State's single biggest importer of electricity.

For Bradley, who works for the non-profit advocacy group Minnesotans for an Energy Efficient Economy, that fact wasn't so shocking; but the margin was. According to the DOE numbers, Minnesota's net imports of electricity--28.2 trillion BTUs in 2001--account for more than a third of the entire nation's imports.

The vast majority of this electricity comes from Manitoba Hydro, the provincially-owned utility which operates an enormous network of power generating dams on the rivers in central and northern Manitoba. Bradley has a laundry list of complaints about Manitoba Hydro. As coordinator of ME3's Just Energy campaign, he has worked for years to highlight the impacts of dam construction , both on the environment and the impoverished Cree communities that live near the flooded areas.

But in Bradley's view, Minnesota's atypical reliance on foreign electricity highlights another important problem: the state's failure to live up to the ubiquitous political rhetoric about the importance of energy independence. "We haven't done enough to take advantage of our own resources," Bradley offers. "Texas has ten times as much wind power as Minnesota. It's not because they love wind. It's because they know how to make money off energy and they see that fossil fuels are diminishing, so they're planning for the next generation."

Ross Hammond, a former manager of environmental affairs at Northern States Power (now known as Xcel Energy), says there are a couple of explanations for Minnesota's status as the nation's top importer of electricity. In part, he says, its a simple matter of geography. Minnesota's proximity to Manitoba--and its vast water resources--makes for relatively easy transmission.

But internal politics at the utility where he used to work also played an important role. "In the mid-80s, there was a shift at NSP, an internal corporate thing," Hammond explains. "The people who were in charge of purchasing power really took control of the company, so as Manitoba built more dams and we signed more long term contracts, we stopped building power plants in the state." In fact, says Hammond, Xcel, the state's largest utility, has not put a new plant on line since the late 80s--this, in spite of the considerable increase in demand.

As Hammond sees it, the reliance on Manitoba Hydro is not all bad. Hydro power, he notes, doesn't emit greenhouse gases and, therefore, doesn't contribute to global warming. It doesn't produce nuclear waste. And it is relatively cheap. "The dams are a good thing," Hammond says. But he adds one major caveat: "Manitoba Hydro needs to fulfill its obligations to the Cree people--has to do the right thing by Cree. And they haven't."

For his part, Ken Bradley offers one further objection. "We're not just importing electricity," he says. "We're also exporting a lot of dollars."

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