A case study for the national renewable energy debate is happening right now in northeast Iowa.
“I think everybody likes the idea of renewable energy. I certainly do. But there’s more to it than just the wind blows on turbines and makes power,” Mike Deutmeyer said, a dairy farmer in the right of way of the Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line.
The Cardinal-Hickory Creek Transmission Line plans to go from the Hickory Creek Substation in rural Dubuque County, to the Cardinal Substation in Middleton, Wisconsin (a suburb of Madison).
The $492 million line is being built by three companies: ITC Midwest, American Transmission Company (ATC) and Dairyland Power Cooperative. It would run about 100 miles in total; 14 miles in Iowa and 86 in Wisconsin.
The companies have touted the line as a massive win for renewable energy; claiming it will help 6.8 million homes get easier access to renewable energy. ATC executives say there are 58 energy generators across the Midwest that “may be limited” in how much energy they can sell if the project does not go through. Fifty-five of those generators produce renewable energy like wind power.
Opponents of the line point to the fact that it will not carry exclusively renewable energy.
Mary Neal, an expert witness for the Wisconsin Citizens Utility board in 2019 said, “My own analysis indicates that Applicants have greatly overstated the wind-related benefits of the Project and that such benefits are highly speculative.”
Federal regulators received over 1,736 pieces of public comment for this project; the majority were in opposition.
“One of my concerns is groundwater. One of my wells is 117-feet deep,” Matt Goebel said, a farmer watching crews drill on his property this month.
The project cuts through the Driftless Area: a geological anomaly in parts of Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois where natural cliffs and valleys did not get flattened by glaciers.
Within the driftless area, there are many subsurface caves and streams. Endangered snails and other animals thrive in these habitats.
“This is one of the gems of the entire country,” Joseph Goebel said; Matt’s father who farms in Clayton County.
The soil in this area is sensitive to any disruption, according to Iowa State Geologist Keith Schilling. The 14 miles the Cardinal-Hickory Creek line traverses in Iowa is 100% “karst terrain”. Karst terrain is the name given to areas with soluble bedrock and little to no topsoil.
The obstacles karst terrain creates have stopped large utility projects in other states. On June 24, the Ohio Power Siting Board denied a wind farm in Seneca and Sandusky counties because it was on at least 50-100% karst terrain.
Regulators said, “the presence of karst features in the project area requires avoidance.” They also said there could be a “major impact” to public health and wellbeing.
“It was nice to see the regulatory board not just pass a project like that,” Deutmeyer said, who feels Iowa regulators should read up on it.
ITC Midwest declined to do an interview for this story, but gave this response over email about the Ohio board’s decision:
“ITC Midwest is not involved in wind farm construction and will not comment on Ohio utility cases. The Cardinal-Hickory Creek project underwent comprehensive environmental review pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) prior to receiving final federal authorizations for the project in September 2020. In addition, ITC Midwest has received all necessary state permits, including approval from the Iowa Utilities Board in May 2020, for the project in Iowa.”
Rod Pritchard, ITC Spokesperson
Despite concerns about the need for the line, its environmental effects and its cost, regulators in both states approved the project. The Wisconsin Public Service Commission approved it in September 2019, and the Iowa Utilities Board approved it in May 2020.
Construction started on the Iowa side on April 29, 2021, and the future was looking good for the three companies. But on June 28, they uncovered secret, encrypted messages between at least one of their employees and a Public Service Commission member who approved the project.
During court-ordered discovery for a lawsuit being made by the Driftless Area Land Conservancy and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, the companies found private messages former commissioner Michael Huebsch sent to an ATC employee and an ITC contractor.
“There was at least an appearance of bias,” Howard learner said, a lawyer for the two groups.
Lawyers for the utility companies said on June 28:
“While we are disappointed by these recent developments, they have no bearing on the state’s need for the Project, which is vital to ensuring a cleaner, more reliable, and more affordable energy future for Wisconsin.”
Perkins Coie, representing ITC, ATC And Dairyland Power
Huebsch was using an app called Signal to message these people. Signal lets the user delete messages after a certain time. Perkins Coie said on June 28 it was unable to recover the messages.
For that reason, they can not be certain the messages were about the Cardinal-Hickory Creek project. But in an effort to show transparency, they asked the Public Service Commission to revoke their 2019 approval and allow the utilities to submit a new application.
“It just does not inspire public confidence in the utility regulatory process,” Learner said.
The PSCW voted on July 1 to reopen public comment but has not voted on revoking the 2019 approval. No date has been set but the vote should happen this summer.
While this has been going on, construction in Iowa has not stopped.
Since applicants have repeatedly said this is a project to benefit Wisconsin, Goebel and Deutmeyer are unsure why they’re continuing without a solid plan across the Mississippi River.
“I see no reason for the line in Iowa, at least through the research I’ve done, if it doesn’t continue into Wisconsin,” Deutmeyer said.
ITC Midwest gave KWWL this statement about construction in Iowa:
“As the request to rescind and reopen the Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (CPCN) with the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSCW) proceeds through the regulatory process, ITC Midwest is continuing construction on Iowa segment one of the Cardinal-Hickory Creek Transmission Line Project. Construction has been underway on this 12-mile segment since April 29, which stretches from the Hickory Creek Substation in Dubuque County to the Turkey River Substation in Clayton County. The Iowa Utilities Board granted a franchise for the Iowa segment of the Cardinal-Hickory Creek project in May 2020.”
Rod Pritchard, ITC Spokesperson
The Iowa Utilities Board ordered the companies to provide a construction update on July 8. They have 30 days to complete the request and they also need to give an analysis of the project benefits if it were only to exist in Iowa.
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