With the first towers already going up on the Wisconsin side, crews are racing weather and wildlife to string high-voltage power lines over the Mississippi River between southern Minnesota and western Wisconsin.
Chunks of ice crunched under the hull recently as Zach Pontzer piloted a 20-foot launch from shore to an island where workers were preparing foundations for towers that will carry three lines across the river.
“We weren’t expecting cold this soon,” Pontzer said. “We expected another two to three weeks.”
Pontzer is the project manager for J.F. Brennan, the La Crosse-based contractor handling the river crossing, part of a $550 million project to string high-voltage transmission lines between Hampton, Minn., and a new substation under construction in Holmen.
The line is one segment of CapX2020, a $2.2 billion initiative that 11 partner utilities say is needed to upgrade the power grid and connect wind energy resources to eastern population centers.
The 48.6-mile Wisconsin portion was approved last year by the Public Service Commission, which assessed the fees as a percentage of the total cost that will be shared by rate payers with Xcel and other partner utilities across the Midwest. Wisconsin regulators are now considering another transmission line, known as Badger-Coulee, that would connect CapX to Dane County at a cost of up to $580 million.
Opponents contend the projects are unnecessary – power usage has barely grown in the past decade – and will discourage energy efficiency and other alternatives such as solar, which they say would provide more local economic benefits.
The CapX line also prompted opposition from residents along the route, who complain it hurts property values, harms wildlife and mars the area’s scenic beauty.
One motorist stopped to assess the progress of several towers going up near Cochrane.
“I don’t like it,” he said as he drove off. “But what can you do?”
Construction of the 155-mile segment is expected to take about 18 months, but the 1.3-mile crossing, with a cost of $30.5 million, is the most challenging element of the project, said Xcel spokesman Tim Carlsgaard.
Everything has to be brought to the site on barges. That includes the bulldozers and cranes as well as 500 loads of concrete.
“Getting that many trucks staged and ready is quite a task,” Pontzer said.
It takes about 20 minutes each way – without ice – which he wasn’t expecting until December.
“Luckily the project’s winding down,” Pontzer said. “It’s getting kind of unbearable.”
A crane lifted the final 60 or so feet of lattice tower off its base so that workers could begin dismantling it for scrap. Meanwhile, a barge ferried two cement trucks out to the island to pour another set of pedestals for the 180-foot single-pole towers that will replace it.
Each of the pedestals sits on a five-foot slab of concrete atop pilings driven 60 feet into the ground.
That’s to support a 130,000-pound tower designed to withstand a 108 mph straight-line wind, or a 50 mph wind in combination with a 1.5-inch coating of ice on the lines, said Grant Stevenson, senior project manager for Xcel.
Brennan began work in August, taking down existing Dairyland Power lines between Alma and Rochester to make way for the new line. Stevenson said Xcel earlier built another line into Rochester to ensure the city is served by three circuits even during construction.
Logistics, regulations and weather all have been challenges. But a pair of bald eagles could bring the whole project to a halt.
The line, which crosses the Upper Mississippi National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, runs within 660 feet of two eagle nests, and federal wildlife regulations prohibit activity in that range when eagles are nesting.
The nest on the Minnesota side hasn’t been active in years, said Lisa Reid, wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But the Wisconsin nest is active.
Reid said bald eagles don’t typically begin nesting activity until February. But if they are in the area, they could show up earlier.
“They could do nest building and tidying up,” Reid said.
That could spell big trouble for the project.
“If an eagle shows up, we shut down,” Carlsgaard said. “The entire project would go on hold until August.”
Stevenson is confident that won’t be an issue.
“We want to be done well before there’s a chance of an eagle being on those nests,” he said. “That’s why we started in August.”
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