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N.D. rural electric co-ops plan $2 billion upgrades

FARGO -- North Dakota rural electric cooperatives plan to go on a spending spree, with planned investments approaching $2 billion over the next three years to upgrade transmission lines and emission controls.

The investment figure, compiled by the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives, will be used to help woo support for an increase in federally guaranteed loans.

"We're seeing a strong demand for capital as we make needed investments to meet growing power demand over the next few years," said Dennis Hill, executive vice president of the electric co-op association.

Rural electric co-op representatives will flock to Washington to lobby support from Congress next week to boost the loan authority for a rural facilities program. The Bush administration has requested rural utilities financing of $4.1 billion for next year.

"We'll be asking Congress to increase that loan authority to $6.6 billion, which is closer to the national need to keep up with growing demand and replacement of aging electric facilities," Hill said.

The co-ops' sales pitch: There is little or no cost to the government from their borrowing, they maintain, since the loan guarantee authority is tied to the government's borrowing cost.

A breakdown of planned investment in North Dakota includes $300 million to build or upgrade distribution lines and $1.7 billion for high-voltage transmission lines, environmental upgrades and efficiency improvements, both in power plants and wind farms.

For example, Minnkota Power Cooperative, which is based in Grand Forks and supplies Cass County Electric Cooperative, plans to spend $260 million over the next five years to improve emissions controls at its Milton Young plant near Center, N.D.

That includes new scrubbers for both of the plants units to remove 90 percent to 95 percent of sulfur dioxide, and "acid rain" pollutant, from the smokestacks.

Also, $120 million will be spent to upgrade the coal-fired plant's electrical equipment to comply with new regulations and improve aging equipment, said Mike Nisbet, Minnkota spokesman.

Rural electric co-op representatives will meet with the North Dakota congressional delegation and Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer to press their case for expanded borrowing authority.

The Forum and The Dickinson Press are both owned by Forum Communications Co.