CASSVILLE, Wis. – An electrical substation along the Mississippi River is all that remains of the Nelson Dewey Generating Station, one of the dozens of coal-fired power plants that closed across the Midwest during the past decade.
Demolishing the aging Dewey plant, named after Wisconsin’s first governor, marked another victory in a long battle to improve air quality, fight climate change and shift the region toward cleaner, less expensive energy.
Conservationists hoped the site would someday be added to Nelson Dewey’s former estate, now a state park. Or perhaps absorbed into the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge, a meandering stretch of protected river bluffs and flood plains where migratory birds breed and bald eagles spend the winter.
Instead, Wisconsin ratepayers – and others as far away as Michigan and downstate Illinois – could be forced to pay clout-heavy energy companies more than $1 billion for a new high-voltage power line that would start near the Dewey substation.
The proposed Cardinal-Hickory Creek line would cut across the wildlife refuge and stretch northeast toward Madison on towers as tall as 17-story buildings through the Driftless Area – a geological anomaly where the pancake flat Midwest gives way to forested hills and the picturesque barns of family-owned dairy farms.
An ongoing dispute about the high-voltage line is part of a broader debate about who pays for and benefits from the rapidly changing business of electricity generation and transmission, not just in the Midwest but nationally. It also is about an outdated regulatory process that favors corporate profits over considerations about the planet’s climate and the ecology of local communities.
Backers contend the line would benefit homeowners and businesses by linking urban areas east of the Mississippi to low-cost renewable energy in rural Iowa and Minnesota.
“The project is part of a solution that enables new generation capacity in wind-rich areas to replace the older fossil fuel plants that are being retired throughout the region,” Tom Dagenais, the power line’s lead planner, told Wisconsin regulators last year.
Hundreds of pages of regulatory documents reviewed by the Chicago Tribune tell a more complex, largely contradictory story. Only the project’s investors are guaranteed to benefit if the line is built, the records show.
Wisconsin officials approved the power line in August even though their own professional staff determined the cost would exceed the purported gains. Independent experts concluded the line isn’t needed to keep the lights on. Others testified it could increase climate change pollution by providing a conduit to new markets for coal plants in the Upper Midwest and Great Plains that otherwise would be slated to close.
“There are cleaner, faster, cheaper alternatives readily available,” said Howard Learner, president of the nonprofit Environmental Law and Policy Center, a Chicago-based group challenging the project in state and federal court. “We can do better and deserve better.”
Upheaval in energy sector
Plans for a massive new power line come as demand for electricity is flat or declining in many states, including Illinois and Wisconsin. A glut of relatively inexpensive natural gas and a growing supply of wind and solar power is driving down wholesale electricity prices. As a result, traditional energy companies are finding it increasingly difficult to make money from coal and nuclear plants.
Some companies have responded by pressing state lawmakers for subsidies, such as the 2016 Illinois bailout of Chicago-based Exelon after the company threatened to close nuclear plants near the Quad Cities and downstate Clinton.
Ohio awarded new subsidies last year to its two nuclear plants and a pair of power plants supplied by one of the state’s biggest coal companies. In another bid to prop up what’s left of the coal industry, lawmakers in Indiana are considering legislation that would make it more difficult for utilities to shut down money-losing power plants that burn the fossil fuel.
Then there are companies like the chief investors in the Cardinal-Hickory Creek project: the American Transmission Co. and ITC Midwest LLC. Spun off from traditional utilities, the companies are guaranteed a profit if they build new transmission lines.
Analysts generally agree transmission networks need to be overhauled to reliably deliver electricity generated only when the wind blows or sun shines, rather than carry energy produced by coal and nuclear plants that operate around the clock whether or not they are needed.
Yet there are key differences between a power line like Cardinal-Hickory Creek, which would carry electricity from myriad sources, and others that by design would only transmit wind or solar power. Fast-declining prices for battery storage and advances in local grid improvements also challenge the idea that expensive, multistate transmission lines are still necessary.
One of the experts who testified against the Cardinal-Hickory Creek line is Jon Wellinghoff, an energy consultant who led the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission under former President Barack Obama. New technology can make existing transmission lines more effective at a fraction of the cost to build a new one, he told Wisconsin regulators.
“I’m not anti-transmission, I’m anti-stupid,” Wellinghoff said in an interview. “But for now the rules are still stacked in favor of the more you spend the more you make, regardless of whether or not your project is a good idea.”
The Driftless landscape
In Iowa County, west of Madison, esoteric debates about the electric grid aren’t the main focus for hundreds of people who during the past five years organized, packed town halls and bombarded state lawmakers with calls and letters urging them to reject the Cardinal-Hickory Creek line.
What unites the politically diverse opponents is the thought of garish towers stretching across a pastoral Midwestern landscape.
Untouched by ice age glaciers that scoured other parts of the region, the Driftless Area features jagged limestone cliffs, deep valleys and spring-fed trout streams. Over the years it has become a mecca for sustainable agriculture, recreation and tourism, retaining the influence of Norwegian farmers who settled the area during the 1800s.
The topography drew architect Frank Lloyd Wright to build Taliesin, his home and studio near Spring Green, and inspired Aldo Leopold, the scientist and writer who helped pioneer wilderness conservation, private land restoration and soil-saving practices still used throughout the Driftless.
Today the area’s friends are outdoors enthusiasts and land preservationists. Others include current or former Chicago-area residents who, like Lerner, either own homes in the Driftless or moved here permanently.
“I’m hard-pressed to think of another issue that has galvanized regional solidarity in this unpredictable, stubbornly independent region,” Curt Meine, a conservationist and author who wrote an acclaimed biography of Leopold, said about the proposed power line.
“Shaped by the landscape, people here have resisted corporate agriculture that dominates the rest of the Midwest,” Meine said. “Once they got up to speed about how fast the energy landscape is changing, they realized whatever is built now is probably going to be outmoded by the time it’s done.”
John Hess, president of the Iowa County Historical Society, keeps a folder with copies of the brief, polite letters he’s written urging Gov. Tony Evers and executives at the American Transmission Co. to drop the project. Unsatisfied with their responses, Hess, who also leads a township south of Spring Green, joined county officials who are challenging the power line in court.
“Other than agriculture, our main economic driver here is tourism,” said Hess, who grew up near Milwaukee, worked in the Chicago suburbs for two decades and moved to the Driftless 35 years ago. “If this power line comes through here and messes everything up, it could be devastating.”
The nonprofit organizations represented by Learner and his team of lawyers are the Driftless Area Land Conservancy and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, a group of hunters and anglers led by George Meyer, who served as chief of the state Department of Natural Resources under former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson.
Echoing landowners in the area, Meyer told state regulators the heavy equipment needed to build the power line would damage forests and streams that local and state officials have spent decades restoring and protecting.
“My members definitely aren’t a bunch of tree-huggers, but they care deeply about this important natural resource,” Meyer said in a recent interview. “For many others in the area, this is the first time they’ve gotten involved in a dispute like this. The fact that the state rebuffed the clear will of the people is disheartening.”
A cost for 12 states’ ratepayers
One of the selling points that persuaded the three-member Public Service Commission of Wisconsin to unanimously approve Cardinal-Hickory Creek is the cost would be split between ratepayers in 12 states overseen by one of the region’s grid operators.
Because Michigan uses the most electricity on this particular regional grid, its ratepayers would end up paying 21% of the cost to build the power line – more than any other state. Wisconsin ratepayers would only pay 15% of the costs, while those in Illinois would pick up 10% of the tab.
Unlike downstate ratepayers, ComEd customers in northern Illinois aren’t directly affected because the area is part of a separate regional grid. But the forced cost-sharing arrangement for Cardinal-Hickory Creek prompted Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul to formally oppose the power line.
Wisconsin commissioners said they were swayed by promises the power line would help meet their state’s climate goals. Evers, a Democrat elected in 2018, pledged last year that all of the state’s electricity will be carbon-free by 2050.
The commissioners also said they agreed with arguments from the project’s backers, who contend the line is needed to ensure the electric grid remains reliable.
“For me, the risks of not building this line and being wrong are just too great,” Patricia Valcq, a former utility lawyer who Evers appointed to chair the Wisconsin commission, said before the August vote.
Opponents urged Valcq and then-Commissioner Mike Huebsch to recuse themselves from voting on the power line. Valcq formerly represented the parent company of WE Energies, the state’s largest investor-owned utility and owner of 60% of the main company behind Cardinal-Hickory Creek. Huebsch, who stepped down shortly after the vote, served on an advisory board for the regional grid operator that pushed for the project.
Before approving the power line, both denied having conflicts of interest. Valcq called the accusation “opportunistic at best and at worst contemptible.” A spokesman said in an email that commissioners will not comment while the matter is under litigation.
As lawyers prepare to meet again in court to determine the fate of Cardinal-Hickory Creek, energy markets continue to change.
Another Wisconsin utility, the Dairyland Power Cooperative, announced last month it will close one of its coal plants by next year. Since 2013, economic realities have led Dairyland and other companies to scrap five of the state’s 12 coal plants and one of its two nuclear plants.
Dairyland executives said the Genoa Generating Station isn’t needed now that they are building a new gas-fired plant. The company also is a minor investor in the Cardinal-Hickory Creek project.
Meanwhile, new large-scale wind and solar farms are in the works for Wisconsin, which lagged behind neighboring states during former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s time in office.
The surge of renewable energy projects within the state raises more questions about why a new high-voltage line is necessary to transmit electricity generated in other states.
Joe Schwarzmann, a Driftless resident whose land would be crossed by the Cardinal-Hickory Creek line, said he struggles to understand why Wisconsin officials agreed with the project’s backers.
“The attitude is they are going to do whatever they want to do, and there’s nothing those of us out here can do to stop them,” Schwarzmann said. “But we’re not giving up. We’re not just going to take this lying down.”