Power lines main

High-voltage electric transmission lines going up along Madison's Beltline would eventually be linked to the CapX 2020 line north of La Crosse, which opponents want to block.

Groups opposing high-capacity power lines are hoping that a court challenge will torpedo plans to set up an electricity transmission system they say the state doesn’t need.

NoCapX 2020 and Citizens Energy Task Force are asking a Dane County judge to review the state Public Service Commission's decision approving the CapX 2020 line, which will run from the Dakotas, through Minnesota, then from Alma to Holmen to serve the La Crosse metro region. It's one of eight high-capacity lines either under way or proposed in Wisconsin.

For more on the state's high-capacity transmission line plans, read Mike Ivey's recent report

If the court rules in favor of the power line opponents, another proposed transmission line, the Badger Coulee line, would be threatened. The Badger Coulee line would connect the CapX 2020 line from La Crosse to Madison, where it would hook up with high-capacity lines currently under construction. If the CapX 2020 line doesn't happen, the Badger Coulee line doesn't have anything with which to connect.

The project’s opponents hope the judge will either reverse the PSC’s order approving CapX 2020 or remand it to the commission for another hearing on the application.

“We’re not simply challenging CapX 2020. We’re challenging the Public Service Commission’s decision-making process, which should affect all future applications,” says activist Deb Severson. “We’re saying you need to follow the letter of the law when it comes to defining whether the benefits to Wisconsin ratepayers are proportionate to the costs.”

Severson is a member of the Citizens Energy Task Force and also works with Soul of the Kickapoo, which opposes the Badger Coulee line. She says the PSC made several errors and omissions of fact when it approved the CapX 2020 line in May. Among them was that the commission vastly understated the cost of the project, which Wisconsin ratepayers will in part be on the hook for.

The petition for judicial review filed on Aug. 16 in Dane County Circuit Court says the PSC estimated the cost of the project at $211 million, while the actual costs will be $507 million. That’s because Wisconsin will be sharing the cost for the Minnesota portion of the line as well as the Badger State segment.

The Badger Coulee line, Severson says, will add another $340 million to the ratepayer burden if that application is approved by the PSC.

Tim Carlsgaard, spokesman for CapX 2020 and Xcel Energy, one of several utilities that are involved in the project, says from a financial standpoint, consumers stand to gain from the line. Some power lines need to be rebuilt, and it makes sense to build one line rather than have each utility build their own.

“They’re going to benefit far better under that kind of scenario than having each of those companies go out and build new transmission lines,” he says.

While the utilities proposing the build-up of transmission lines say they are needed to provide Wisconsin with reliable service, opponents say the proposals are not about delivering electrical service to Wisconsin citizens -- they’re about delivering profits to the utilities.

Severson and other critics maintain that the real motivation behind the high-capacity lines for the utilities is the ability to purchase cheap energy in the Dakotas, then ship to the East Coast.

"It's all about wholesale energy and being able to sell the generation capacity to a larger market, most often the East Coast because prices are higher there," Severson says.

The power line opponents also say the PSC used outdated data when determining the need for the project.

“Wisconsin currently has enough excess in-state generation that we don’t need to ship more electricity in,” Severson says.

Carlsgaard disputes the suggestion that the La Crosse area, where the CapX 2020 line ends, has an adequate electrical supply to meet future needs. He says Xcel has seen increasing demand from growth in the poultry industry, and sand mining, and has had to deal with record-breaking demand because of unusually hot summers.

“If you want to see the metro La Crosse area continue to grow, you have to have a reliable source of electricity,” he says.

He adds: “The important thing is this, when you plan your transmission system, you have to plan for those hottest days of the year. You plan for those peak days.”

In addition to the outright monetary costs detailed in the court petition, the opponents of the high-capacity lines say other costs to ratepayers and citizens in general will be declining property values, unsightly transmission towers throughout Wisconsin’s scenic landscape, and fallout from electromagnetic fields emanating from the lines, which some say can result in a variety of ailments, including increased incidents of cancer.

“Every one of those issues has been addressed several times over,” says Carlsgaard, pointing out that two states and the federal government have approved the project. “The state of Wisconsin did a full-blown environmental impact statement that looks at everything from health to other environmental issues. They did not find an issue as far as moving forward with this project and approving it.”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.