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Citizen groups go to court to stop power line

Opponents of a high-voltage power line linking La Crosse and Rochester, Minn., have filed a lawsuit challenging the Wisconsin Public Service Commission’s decision in May to approve the plan.

The $507 million project is part of an array of power lines, mainly in Minnesota, proposed by a coalition of utilities led by Xcel Energy Corp. of Minneapolis. The CapX2020 projects are intended to bolster the region’s network of 345,000-volt transmission lines.

But opponents, including the Citizens Energy Task Force of La Crosse and NoCapX 2020 of Red Wing, Minn., have challenged the need for the lines. The utilities estimate the Wisconsin portion of the project will cost $211 million.

The suit claims the utilities proposed the project based on outdated forecasts for electric demand that don’t reflect the impact of the economic downturn. The suit contends the forecasts “were overstatements and wishful thinking on the part of the utilities.”

The groups also argue the PSC failed to give proper weight to the expertise of lawyers for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, who argued against a portion of the line, citing historic easements aimed to protect the scenic byway along the Mississippi River, also known as the Great River Road.

The suit was filed late last week in Dane County Circuit Court.

The utilities that are seeking to build the line say a review by the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator highlights the need for the project.

The court fight may be something of a long shot, utility observers say, given the trend in recent court cases to give deference to the PSC in its decisions.

The courts have given considerable leeway to the commission in a series of decisions in recent years, especially the Clean Wisconsin vs. PSC case that went all the way to the state Supreme Court. The Wisconsin high court sided in 2005 with We Energies in the Milwaukee utility’s bid to build its more than $2 billion coal-fired power plant project in Oak Creek.

This year, two customer groups lost in their bid to challenge the process the PSC used to approve Madison-based Alliant Energy Corp.’s application to build a large wind farm in Minnesota. The Wisconsin regulator was reviewing the project in Minnesota because of the impact it could have on ratepayers here.