State regulators were correct in their approval of Wisconsin Power & Light Co.’s $460 million wind farm in Minnesota, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The court’s 5-2 decision continued its pattern of giving latitude to the state Public Service Commission in its decision-making. The court set a standard to give the PSC deference in its narrow 2005 vote approving construction of coal-fired power plants in Oak Creek.
The state PSC had approved the wind farm under a process that was less rigorous than major power plants are required to have if they are built in Wisconsin.
Customer groups objected, saying there was no distinction in state law for where the projects would be built. The customer groups were concerned that the PSC’s decision could set a precedent for other large power generation projects that utilities may propose out-of-state.
Joining the PSC, Wisconsin Power & Light, along with Milwaukee-based We Energies and Wisconsin Public Service Corp. of Green Bay, argued the more exhaustive review should not be required for out-of-state projects, and that a lesser review would still protect ratepayers from an unnecessary project.
The Supreme Court’s ruling affirms a circuit court decision that sided with the PSC, that the Bent Tree project didn’t need a more exhaustive review.
We Energies said the customer groups’ interpretation is unconstitutional because it would restrict interstate commerce – in this case the sale of electricity across state lines.
But customer groups said a more exhaustive review could have detected earlier problems experienced at the wind farm because of a weak transmission grid in the area. The PSC later penalized WP&L for failing to disclose the transmission problems earlier.
The transmission congestion problems were preventing WP&L from generating as much power as it had first envisioned. By early 2011, though, power line upgrades in the area helped boost the output of the wind farm, WP&L said.
The 200-megawatt wind farm was projected to supply enough power over a year’s time to supply about 50,000 typical homes.
The Citizens’ Utility Board said it was disappointed with the court’s decision.
“We believe it’s a dark day for ratepayers, because Wisconsin utilities could propose to build a large power plant just across state lines, and the PSC could approve the project, without holding a hearing, without taking testimony from intervenors like CUB and WIEG (Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group), and without even reviewing the application,” said Charlie Higley, the customer group’s executive director. “The commission itself has delegated authority to division administrators to decide cases involving requests for certificates of authority.”
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