The Wisconsin Public Service Commission continues to question the need for a proposed high-voltage power line between Alma and Holmen, but the utilities behind the project say demand is there for more energy – and the project creates a backup that doesn’t rely on oil-burning generators on French Island.
The PSC on Thursday released a final environmental assessment of the Wisconsin leg of CapX2020, incorporating comments from the public, state and federal agencies and the utilities.
The 345-kilovolt line would run along one of nine proposed routes through Buffalo, Trempealeau and La Crosse counties, ending at a substation to be built southwest of Holmen.
It’s part of a multi-utility plan to connect the Minnesota cities of Hampton and Rochester to La Crosse, which in turn is one of four regional projects of CapX2020, a consortium of utilities in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa and Wisconsin including Xcel Energy and La Crosse-based Dairyland Power Cooperative.
A similar ATC Badger Coulee line has been proposed from Holmen to the Madison area.
A French Island alternative?
CapX2020 argues the project would upgrade an outdated system and deliver wind energy. Opponents say energy demand is declining and the lines will actually carry coal power to the east while local customers will bear the costs – as much as $490 million – and suffer damage to health and property values.
The PSC has questioned the stated need.
At issue are: the ability to meet demand in 2030; and to meet peak loads in the event that two pieces of the system fail at the same time.
The La Crosse metro area demand has exceeded that capacity – 430 megawatts – at least once every year since 2003, said project spokesman Tim Carlsgaard. The peak load reached 465 MW one day in July when the temperature reached 96 degrees.
“If something would have happened that day” – such as wind knocking down a power line while one of the region’s four power plants was offline – “we’d have real issues as far as service,” Carlsgaard said. “That’s why you have to have sufficient transmission.”
The PSC staff suggests two backup generators at Xcel Energy’s French Island plant would provide more than enough power in such an event.
Carlsgaard questions the wisdom of relying on aging oil burners, which he said would require truckloads of fuel in the event of extended use. One of the units has been out of service for several years; the other is typically used five to 10 hours a year, Carlsgaard said.
Carlsgaard argues that among Wisconsin’s 20 largest cities, La Crosse is the only one without 345kW service, and that it takes a decade to plan and build a new transmission line.
The PSC says the application exaggerates growth estimates for population and electricity demand.
Irv Balto, a leader of the Citizens Energy Task Force, one of several grassroots opposition groups, said he was surprised and pleased that the final document didn’t support the argument for need.
CapX expects the total project cost to be up to $490 million. The Wisconsin portion is expected to cost $195 million to $234 million, depending on the route.
Carlsgaard said Dairyland will have to spend up to $40 million more to upgrade aging lines if the utilities’ preferred route – along the Mississippi River – is not selected.
Proposed routes would affect state and federal wildlife areas, the scenic area along Hwy. 35, woodlands and farms and residential areas, especially south of Galesville.
State and federal wildlife agencies, as well as the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, oppose the river route. Though ATC has yet to submit an application for the Badger Coulee line, it has expressed a preference for a CapX2020 route through Arcadia.
La Crosse County, the Holmen school district and a number of towns along the route have passed resolutions opposing the project.
The final environmental impact statement, available on the PSC website, incorporates some changes to the 285-page document based on comments from stakeholders. It also summarizes some 180 public comments expressing concerns about the need for the project, its impact to health, natural resources and property values, and preferred routes.
The commission is expected to rule on the application by June.
Utilities expect final approval of the Minnesota route by April. A federal environmental review is expected to be completed in the fall. If approved, land acquisition could begin later this year with construction starting in 2013.
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