“1, 2, 3, 4 . . . I declare a thumb war!” – Prelude to Children’s Game
Anyone having a child anytime in the last 50 years probably recognizes the preliminary statement leading to the noblest of physical contests – the Thumb War. But, another Thumb War is underway in Michigan’s own Thumb Region. There, the State has some of its greatest potential for wind power, which has resulted in the establishment of wind farms. The trick to exploit this resource is being able to get it to where the greatest loads are and the way that is done is through transmission lines.
On August 30, 2010, ITC Transmission (ITC) submitted a request to the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) for an expedited approval to site 140 miles of double circuit 345,000 volt lines and four substations to be installed in phases to move electricity generated by Thumb-area wind farms. However, this application was met with some opposition. Among the challengers was an industry group, ABATE, which includes as members Chrysler, Delphi, Dow Corning, Ford Motor, and Marathon Petroleum, among others. Also challenging ITC’s request was the Michigan Public Power Agency (MPPA) and the Michigan Municipal Electric Association (MMEA).
ABATE’s objections centered on whether there was a need for the transmission line and whether there would be enough future wholesale users to make the transmission facilities economical vis-a-vis its members. The MPPA and MMEA were concerned that the costs of the transmission projects would drive up costs for its members located in that region, as well. In short, those opposing the application for expedited approval believed that the existing transmission could handle present loads and that if those loads would be increased by future wind projects, ITC could apply for new transmission then.
Pursuant to the MPSC’s procedures, the parties sought information from ITC and prepared their objections, to which ITC responded. MPSC then was required to consider the evidence on the record and determine whether ITC’s application was consistent with the requirements for expedited approval under Public Act 295.
On February 25, 2011, the MPSC approved ITC’s application. The MPSC concluded with respect to ITC’s petition that these transmission lines were needed to develop wind power in Michigan as required by the State’s legislature:
It is undisputed that the Thumb Region has the greatest potential for the development of wind farms. There is also no dispute that the current transmission capability in the Thumb Region is not sufficient to move much more electric power to market. The unrebutted testimony on the record to the effect that the current transmission system is at or near capacity at this time and failure to add additional transmission capacity will frustrate the Legislature’s direction for the Commissions to facilitate the development of wind power in this state.
Shortly thereafter, the MPPA and MMEA filed a notice of appeal to the Court of Appeals. ABATE sought a stay from the MPSC Order approving the expedited siting while the appeal was pending; a request the MPSC denied.
Unless opponents are more successful in the Michigan appellate courts, it appears that the transmission of electricity from the wind farms in the Thumb to load centers will occur as envisioned by ITC. The availability of transmission may act to stimulate more wind farm development in the Thumb as lenders will be more assured that developers can get their electricity to market. Without additional transmission capacity, it is doubtful that new wind farms could be developed, as lenders and investors will only invest if they know that there is a market for the electricity being generated by the wind farm. Given the deference courts usually give to administrative agencies like the MPSC, the likelihood of success of reversing the MPSC seems questionable.
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