A fight that involves dueling environmental constituencies is brewing over plans for a massive transmission line that would run through the Driftless Region of southwestern Wisconsin.
Developers say the estimated $500 million, 125-mile line would help buttress the regional power grid and provide access to lower-priced electricity in Iowa and other states.
But like the clamor that has erupted over construction of oil pipelines, transmission lines also engender strong emotions, with opponents often raising environmental objections.
In this case, Wisconsin’s newest power-line proposal pits a pair of green interests: those who see the project as a blight on the picturesque ridges and valleys of the region and those who say it opens up a new route for renewable wind energy from other states.
The Cardinal-Hickory Creek power line would run from west of Madison to Dubuque County in Iowa, where it would be linked to a growing fleet of wind farms that produce no greenhouse gases.
The Wisconsin Public Service Commission, whose members have all been appointed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, must decide whether the line is needed, and, if so, the best corridor to build it.
The developers have not yet selected precise route options, but recently sent letters to potentially affected property owners.
Two electric transmission companies – Pewaukee-based American Transmission Co. and ITC Midwest of Cedar Rapids, Iowa – lead the project. A third partner is Dairyland Power Cooperative of La Crosse.
The companies expect to make a formal application in 2018. If approved, the new line would begin operating in 2023.
The PSC’s decision will center on the need for a transmission line in a state now brimming with power. Regulators also will assess the ecological impact of a system whose towers will rise half the length of a football field and occupy 150 feet of right-of-way.
A comparable project can now be seen on stretches of I-90/94 in northern Dane and Columbia counties and the Lake Delton area of Sauk County, where another transmission line, the Badger Coulee, is under construction. It will run between Madison and La Crosse.
The Cardinal-Hickory Creek line has been included in a group of more than a dozen transmission projects that the Midwest’s grid operator and planning agency, known as the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, says should be built to maintain the reliability of the system and help alleviate traffic jams on the wires.
That means Wisconsin utility customers would pay about 15% of the cost of the line because MISO recommended that it be built for the benefit of the region.
Factors favoring the line, said the leader of a utility watchdog group, are falling electricity prices from wind and mandates in neighboring states for renewable energy that are higher than Wisconsin’s 10%.
On the other hand, electric demand in the state has been flat, said Thomas Content, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, which will analyze the case when it reaches the PSC.
“From our perspective, it’s making sure the need is justified,” Content said.
New transmission lines are going up as the power industry evolves from heavy reliance on coal-fired plants to a more varied mix that includes natural gas, wind, solar and other renewable sources.
Advocates for more renewable power say shifting to wind requires bigger transmission systems to move power around.
Wisconsin received 3.4% of its electricity from wind last year – up from 2.6% in 2015, according to PSC documents.
But the mix of wind is expected to grow.
With more wind turbines in development in Iowa and elsewhere, and the price of wind power falling, “we are seeing a pretty quick transition in the Midwest and a pretty big increase in wind,” said Tyler Huebner, executive director of Renew Wisconsin.
“We need a more robust system to take advantage of it.”
But big transmission towers are not what David Clutter and others want to see.
“This isn’t your typical part of the Midwest or Wisconsin,” said Clutter, executive director of the Driftless Area Land Conservancy. “Our concern is that it will permanently change the character of the area.”
The Driftless group and others, including the Nature Conservancy of Wisconsin, have land holdings in the region and want to protect remnants of prairies and other ecological features that escaped the scouring impact of glaciers thousands of years ago.
This spring, the Iowa County Board, the towns of Dodgeville and Wyoming in Iowa County and the Village of Spring Green in Sauk County have all passed resolutions opposing the project and expressed concerns about the effect on tourism and recreation.
One potential route lies near a segment of Highway 18 in Dane and Iowa counties that passes the communities of Mount Horeb, Barneveld and Dodgeville where vistas of cornfields and tall grass prairies with scattered oaks can stretch for miles.
Among the worries: The potential effect on parcels like the Military Ridge Prairie Heritage Area, which the state Department of Natural Resources has identified as having the highest priority for grassland protection, and the potential scenic harm the line would have on the 40-mile Military Ridge State Trail that runs along the highway.
If the line swings north, there are concerns on how habitat and wildlife would be affected as it cuts through miles of rolling woodlands and oak savannas where there are little or no existing roads or rights-of-way.
Spokeswoman Kaya Freiman of American Transmission Co. said power lines can co-exist with bike trails and sensitive ecosystems. She said the environmental effects will be “thoroughly reviewed” by regulators.
State law also requires that lines be constructed along existing rights-of-way as much as possible, she said.
Opponents are also challenging the line on economic grounds and say the biggest motivation of the transmission companies is receiving the nearly 11% return permitted by regulators on investments to build power lines.
They also note that electric demand has been dropping because of energy conservation and lingering effects of the recession.
On days with peak electric demand, utilities in Wisconsin last year produced 17% more power than was needed, according to PSC figures, and the agency expects it to remain nearly as high in the next five years.
“Very tall towers and transmission lines aren’t needed,” said attorney Howard Learner, executive director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, which has been hired by the Driftless Area Land Conservancy.
“There is already a surplus of generating capacity.”
But despite President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, proponents point to the increasing appeal of wind power.
In Iowa, MidAmerican Energy, a unit of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, is building $3.6 billion of wind capacity and Madison-based Alliant Energy is constructing $1 billion worth of turbines.
Wind in some cases can be cheaper than coal, with new capacity, zero fuel costs, improved technology and the aid of a federal tax credit, according to government and private estimates.
A 2016 report by the investment firm Lazard found the price of wind-generated electricity at $32 to $64 per megawatt-hour. The cost of coal-generated power ranged from $60 to $143 per megawatt-hour.
An analysis this year by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a federal agency, found wind costs to be less than even some natural gas-fired power plants.
With Iowa wind projects gearing up, developers are expecting Cardinal-Hickory Creek to help transmit electricity, said Chris Kunkle, a regional policy manager for Wind on the Wires, a St. Paul, Minn., trade group for pro-wind interests.
“It is an incredibly important line for our clean-energy future,” Kunkle said.
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