March 23, 2022

Cardinal-Hickory Creek: Utilities appeal, say power line delays jeopardize clean energy delivery

Chris Hubbuch | Wisconsin State Journal |

Utilities seeking to build a controversial power line connecting Iowa and Wisconsin are appealing a court decision blocking the Mississippi River crossing and say construction delays could leave the power grid more vulnerable to blackouts, limit clean energy production and lead to higher electricity prices.

Earlier this year, federal Judge William Conley sided with four conservation groups that sued to stop the $492 million Cardinal-Hickory Creek line, finding the environmental review was inadequate and the project is incompatible with the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.

Conley also ruled that a proposed land exchange cannot be used “to evade Congress’ mandate” for the refuge, which covers 261 river miles between Wabasha, Minnesota, and Rock Island, Illinois.

Attorneys for American Transmission Co., ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power Cooperative have appealed Conley’s decision and asked the appeals court to suspend his order blocking the land swap, which they say will delay the December 2023 completion date.

In a court brief filed Monday, the utilities argue a delay would increase construction costs, which are passed on to ratepayers, “compromise reliable operation” of the Midwestern power grid, and contribute to ongoing congestion that prevents the delivery of cheap wind energy from Iowa.

The utilities also say project delays could result in the regional grid operator capping output from new clean energy projects that could power millions of homes.

Even a two-month delay, they say, would result in up to $20 million in losses for Madison Gas and Electric and the WEC Energy Group, the owners of the Badger Hollow Solar Farm in Iowa County. Both utility companies are owners of ATC.

The last of 17 transmission lines approved by the Midwest grid operator in 2011, Cardinal-Hickory Creek is needed “more than ever,” said Beth Soholt, executive director of Clean Grid Alliance, a renewable energy advocacy group.

“This unnecessary litigation is holding up the delivery of clean, low-cost renewable energy in Wisconsin and across the Midwest,” Soholt said. “We cannot stand in the way of delivering the clean energy future the country demands.”

The utilities argue Conley exceeded his jurisdiction when he nixed the proposed land swap because it has yet to be approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and that his ruling rests on “a fundamentally flawed” application of federal laws that are likely to be reversed.

Ruling defended

Howard Learner, the lead attorney for the conservation groups, said Conley’s ruling was “well grounded in law and facts” and accused the utilities of using “overheated rhetoric” as they continue construction.

“They are wasting money that they are charging to ratepayers and they are causing unnecessary environmental damage and property damage,” Learner said. “What they ought to be doing is pausing and stop wasting money.”

Learner also noted the federal agencies that were targets of the lawsuit have not appealed and did not support the utilities’ request to put Conley’s order on hold.

Work begins

The utilities, which have already spent more than $161 million on the project, began cutting trees last fall to make way for the Wisconsin portion of the 101-mile line and plan to begin pouring foundations this spring, according to the most recent progress report filed with state regulators. They planned to build the river crossing next winter in order to minimize harm to birds and wetlands.

After Conley’s order, the Citizens Utility Board asked the Wisconsin Public Service Commission to halt construction, calling the 101-mile line between Dubuque and Middleton “a bridge to nowhere.”

The PSC, which unanimously approved the Wisconsin portion in 2019, has not taken any action.

Though his order does not prohibit construction outside of federal waters, Conley wrote that the ongoing construction on either side of the refuge “amounts to little more than an orchestrated trainwreck at some later point in this lawsuit.”

Other challenges

The case was filed by the Environmental Law and Policy Center on behalf of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, Driftless Area Land Conservancy, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, and Defenders of Wildlife.

DALC and WWF are pursuing separate challenges in state and federal court.

One of those cases is now before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which has been asked to decide if a former regulator’s personal relationships with utility executives constitutes a conflict of interest that could invalidate the construction permit.

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