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Wisconsin residents seek to preserve Driftless Area

A grain wagon supports a sign along Highway 18-151 near Ridgeway. Signs against the proposed 345-kilovolt Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line are prolific along both routes proposed by American Transmission Co. of Pewaukee, ITC Midwest of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Dairyland Power Cooperative of La Crosse.

Took a bus ride to Dubuque, Iowa, last weekend that essentially traveled the route that the proposed "Cardinal-Hickory Creek" massive $500 million transmission line will take if it gets approval from the Wisconsin Public Service Commission by next fall.

The 345-kilovolt line, complete with towers as tall as a 17-story building, would run from Dubuque's Hickory Creek terminal to the Cardinal substation located near Middleton.

After considering some alternatives, American Transmission Company and its utility partners, ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power Cooperative, settled on a route that runs north from Dubuque to Cassville, then east to Dodgeville where it will parallel Highway 151 to Mount Horeb, and then a short jog north to the Middleton substation. It's expected to cost roughly $500 million, $72 million of which will be paid for by ratepayers in their monthly utility bills.

It represents the latest of several ATC projects to build new and larger transmission lines, parts of which have run through environmentally sensitive areas of the state.

A coalition is fighting the proposed line, including the Environmental Law and Policy Center of Madison and Chicago and farmers and landowners who object to tall transmission towers interfering with the driftless area's landscape. Both the Iowa and Dane County boards have voted to join the fight against it. The Wisconsin Wildlife Federation sees harm to fish and wildlife habitat.

Their opposition won't interfere with the supply of electricity, foes of the project out — the reality is that electricity demand is flat and declining and Wisconsin already has a surplus of power supply. So why mess further with the environment?

Indeed a good question, I thought as we traveled Highway 151 to Dodgeville and then headed southwest to Dubuque through the scenic and ecologically unique stretch of a piece of Wisconsin never touched by the glaciers. I tried to imagine the line, basically like the one running along Madison's south and west beltlines, along the highways. It didn't seem pretty.

Alternative energy is already changing the need for transporting electricity long distances, including cheap energy storage, easier ways to conserve power and the local production of alternatives like wind and solar.

The Wisconsin PSC has accepted ATC's preferred route for the new line and has scheduled a series of public meetings to determine the accuracy of a federal environmental impact statement later this month.

Residents can attend a hearing at the Cassville middle school on Wednesday, Jan. 30; in Dodgeville at the Dodger Bowl Jan. 24; in Barneveld at the Deer Valley Lodge Jan. 28; and in Middleton at the Marriott West Hotel Jan. 29. All meetings will be held from 5-7 p.m.

The Public Service Commission will hear comments on the state economic impact statement sometime in February and March.

The PSC needs to take a long look at this proposal and determine whether it's necessary in the first place. We need to stop spending big bucks on power transmission that may be obsolete sooner than we think.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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Dave is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.