Some strange battle lines are being drawn in the quest by power companies to build new high-voltage lines.
The typical players in power-line fights are grass-roots groups clamoring, often in vain, to stop power companies from building the big projects.
The new disputes come at a time when Wisconsin ratepayers are paying above-average rates. They are pitting utility against utility, and, in once case, a former utility executive against his former employer.
Case in point: a complaint brewing at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. American Transmission Co. of Pewaukee has been challenged by Xcel Energy in a legal dispute over who owns the right to build a major power line linking Madison and La Crosse.
Xcel says that it should get a 50% stake in the ownership – and a return on investment – from the line, much of which would be located in the service territory of its Eau Claire-based electric utility.
The reason, Xcel says, is an agreement that allows joint ownership when power lines cross from one company’s territory to another’s.
ATC says it has been working actively to develop the Madison-La Crosse project on its own for more than two years and takes issue with the legal case Xcel cites for its claim to a 50% stake in the $425 million project.
ATC is conducting open houses this month in western and central Wisconsin on the project. “ATC has been the leader on the project, and Xcel has not had any kind of active role in the project whatsoever,” said ATC spokeswoman Anne Spaltholz.
But former ATC planning director Teresa Mogenson, now with Xcel, said Xcel has been concerned about ATC going it alone for some time and wants the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to rule quickly on the matter.
And in a new twist, former ATC vice president Mark Williamson is raising questions about the need for a major power line that would connect the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin.
Williamson was one of the lead voices for ATC when the company was lobbying to build the Wausau-to-Duluth power line nearly a decade ago.
He left the company in 2008 and continued working for ATC as a consultant until last year. ATC did not renew its contract with Williamson’s public affairs consulting firm, Putnam Roby Williamson, Spaltholz said.
To Williamson, plans to build 345,000-volt power lines for the Upper Peninsula seem like “overkill.”
“You’re talking about $1 billion worth of transmission for not very many people and not very much load,” said Williamson, referring to the Upper Peninsula. “There’s got to be cheaper and better ways to fix that.”
He said cheaper options should be explored, especially given the small population in upper Michigan and the affordability of natural gas thanks to expanded domestic production.
ATC’s planning director John Flynn said a variety of factors make the project critical for reliability, not only for the Upper Peninsula but also for northern Wisconsin.
Tighter federal reliability standards as well as the Upper Peninsula’s round-the-clock demand for power – driven mainly by iron-ore mines – are driving the need for the proposed line from the Green Bay area to Ishpeming. Cost of the line could reach $705 million.
“Frankly we’ve tried as a company a number of less capital-intensive ways to address concerns about reliability, and they simply haven’t worked,” Flynn said.
Last May, the U.P. was blacked out for most of a day after ATC took one line out of service for maintenance, and the only other line feeding the peninsula was taken out of service by a lightning strike in northeastern Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, Xcel, Dairyland Power, WPPI Energy and other utilities are facing opposition of their own for a $201 million, 345,000-volt project that will be up for a vote by the Public Service Commission in the coming weeks.
That project would run from Rochester, Minn., then crossing the Mississippi River at Alma, north of La Crosse, and then extend down to La Crosse. Xcel and other utilities say the line is important to help improve the flow of power on the regional power grid and to help import wind power from states like South Dakota. The Minnesota portion of the line has already been approved by that state’s regulators.
Citizen groups including the Citizens Energy Task Force oppose the line, contending the local need for the line, given the impact of the recession cutting demand for energy.
The staff at the state Public Service Commission and citizen groups have questioned the need for a high-voltage line stretching from Alma to La Crosse. The ratepayer group Citizens Utility Board is seeking approval of a smaller, cheaper line, said Charlie Higley, the group’s executive director.
Here, at a glance, are the major projects being debated:
La Crosse-Alma. Western Wisconsin project proposed by Xcel Energy and partner utilities.
Cost: $201 million
Status: Up for Wisconsin PSC decision in May.
La Crosse-Madison. Badger Coulee project proposed by American Transmission Co.
Cost: $425 million.
Status: ATC holding open houses; Xcel Energy challenging ATC’s bid to own and build the line outright
Northern Wisconsin/Upper Peninsula. Bay Lake project proposed by ATC.
Cost: $495 million to $705 million for 345,000-volt line from Green Bay area to Ishpeming
Status: Recently unveiled; questions being raised as to whether it’s needed
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding