Supporters say the La Crosse to Madison line will help the state import renewable energy from wind-rich states like Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas. Renewable energy advocates say a better transmission network will enable more wind farms to be built. Wind farm construction is based in part on there being a way to move the electricity cost-effectively from windy areas to areas that need the power. The line "is needed for Wisconsin and the Midwest to continue expansion and development of low-cost wind power, so that Wisconsin can take advantage of these lower cost resources to save people and businesses money over the long run," said Tyler Huebner, executive director of the Madison renewable energy advocacy group Renew Wisconsin, in a letter to the PSC.
Wisconsin state regulators will decide in the coming weeks whether to approve new power lines that together are projected to cost up to $900 million.
The cases involve big projects by Pewaukee-based American Transmission Co. and other utilities seeking to expand the transmission system to help bring in lower-cost power or address power reliability problems.
One project would link Madison and La Crosse, while a smaller project is part of a series of lines proposed in response to a power blackout that hit Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as well as parts of northeastern Wisconsin.
The state Public Service Commission could vote on the first project as soon as this week.
Opponents of the lines want regulators to take into account the slowdown in electricity sales in recent years, as well as the trend toward more local and distributed energy generation.
Supporters say the La Crosse to Madison line will help the state import renewable energy from wind-rich states like Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas.
Renewable energy advocates say a better transmission network will enable more wind farms to be built. Wind farm construction is based in part on there being a way to move the electricity cost-effectively from windy areas to areas that need the power.
The line “is needed for Wisconsin and the Midwest to continue expansion and development of low-cost wind power, so that Wisconsin can take advantage of these lower cost resources to save people and businesses money over the long run,” said Tyler Huebner, executive director of the Madison renewable energy advocacy group Renew Wisconsin, in a letter to the PSC.
But another clean-energy advocate, the Environmental Law and Policy Center, sides with opponents who say the utilities haven’t proved the line is needed.
ATC and Xcel Energy, a partner on the Badger Coulee line to La Crosse, say they conducted a variety of studies that show that electricity customers will see savings over the long term as a result of building the lines.
And the operator of the Midwest power grid, which is responsible for reliability of the electric system, endorsed the project, which would be co-owned by other utilities, including WPPI Energy and Dairyland Power Cooperative.
Depending on the route, the Madison-La Crosse project would cost $540 million to $580 million. Wisconsin utility customers would pay roughly 15% of the cost of the line because the Midwest grid operator included it with $5 billion in power lines that will have costs spread out among customers across the Midwest.
After determining whether the projects are needed, the three PSC commissioners, all appointees of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, must then assess where the power lines should be built.
One route for the line to La Crosse traverses some of the most scenic and pastoral parts of Wisconsin, including the rolling hills of the Driftless Area and the Grand Coulee region.
Along the way, different routes in the utilities’ plan come near conservationist Aldo Leopold’s shack along the Wisconsin River as well as a rural Buddhist retreat and the state’s largest Amish community, near Cashton in Monroe County.
The Amish community members near La Crosse are conservative Old Order Amish who don’t connect their homes or barns to the power grid and use their feet or horse-drawn buggies for transportation.
As a result, they wouldn’t stand to benefit from the savings on power bills advocated by the utilities, analysts at the state Public Service Commission said in a report.
“The fact that they have even considered such a proposal is an insult to these people who choose to live without the use of electrical power,” Gil Hoel of Cashton said at a public hearing on the project.
A power line crossing through the area would eliminate the area’s “unspoiled beauty, which is our greatest resource,” he said.
“The tourist trade, which is the bread and butter of many Amish and non-Amish residents alike, would be severely compromised,” he said. “If the line is routed here and our Amish neighbors choose to live elsewhere, I’m afraid the local economy would be severely challenged.”
Concern about poles
An alternate route would bring the line into the La Crosse area from the north.
ATC is also facing opposition, though in less organized form, in northern Wisconsin, for the Bay Lake project.
People who moved from the Green Bay area to rural Oconto County are troubled by the prospect of looking at big power poles near the homes they built in the country.
“It’s corporate America-big money vs. the hometown people taking a loss, and there’s an imbalance there,” said David Behrend, who retired to Oconto Falls. “Because once the pole goes up it can’t go back, the damage is done.”
Given the more than 12% return on investment provided to utilities for building transmission lines, “They want to build as many new projects as possible,” he said.
ATC says the line, pegged to cost $307 million to $327 million, is needed to bolster the power grid. What’s on the table is a scaled-back plan from a nearly $1 billion series of projects the transmission company proposed for northern Wisconsin and the U.P. several years ago.
A $120 million Michigan portion of this project was approved last year and is under construction.
Final decisions on both cases are expected by the end of April.
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