Back before anyone talked about climate change or clean energy, fights over new high-voltage electric transmission lines were pretty black and white: Power companies were for them while environmental groups were not.
But debate over the proposed Badger-Coulee Transmission Line through the scenic hills and valleys between La Crosse and Madison shows how much the energy landscape is changing.
While many living near the potential route of American Transmission Company's 345-kilovolt line remain steadfast against it, the project is drawing support from groups like Renew Wisconsin, which say the line will ease the delivery of wind power from Iowa and Minnesota into major population centers to the East.
Michael Vickerman, policy director for Renew Wisconsin, maintains Badger-Coulee offers the best opportunity for customers here to tap into low-cost and non-polluting wind energy.
“Given the lack of policy support for further renewable energy development in Wisconsin, reducing electric bills in this state will require an expansion of wind-power generation region wide, which Badger-Coulee is specifically designed to accommodate,” says Vickerman in a recent op-ed piece.
With an estimated price tag of $540 million to $580 million the Badger-Coulee line won’t come cheap. But since it would be part of the upper Midwest transmission system, 85 percent of the costs would be picked up by ratepayers outside Wisconsin.
A series of public hearings on the project kicked off Monday night in Waunakee with additional meetings scheduled in Holman, Cashton, Warrens and Wisconsin Dells. Technical hearings on the project will be held in 2015 before the state Public Service Commission.
The towers for the line would be similar to those running along the Beltline Highway in Madison — single poles rising 150 feet into the sky. Critics have talked about the visual impact on the southwestern Wisconsin countryside, known as the “Driftless Area” since it avoided the last advance of the glaciers 10,000 years ago.
And those opposing the line are focused on the costs and whether the line is needed given projections that electric usage in Wisconsin is flat or even falling given improvement in energy efficiency and conservation.
Last month, experts filed testimony on behalf of the Wisconsin-based Citizens Energy Task Force and Save Our Unique Lands (SOUL), arguing that the Badger Coulee line is an overreach. They say any constraints on the current transmission system can be handled with better management of peak loads during the summer months when electric demand is highest.
The groups also take issue with projections about the cost savings and economic development opportunities associated with more wind power development. They say smaller scale rooftop solar installations are a better option for clean energy production.
“Wisconsin energy decisions should benefit the public, not special interests,” says Deb Severson of the Citizens Energy group.
The Citizens Utility Board which represents Wisconsin consumers in utility cases has yet to take a position on the Badger-Coulee line. But CUB has intervened in the case to review whether the project makes sense for Wisconsin ratepayers given updated assumptions about future energy use and the cost of alternatives.
“We'll be analyzing the case in light of the reduced cost to Wisconsin customers along with the reduced load forecasts that are being examined and will make a final determination on the case following technical hearings in January,” says Kira Loehr, executive director and general counsel for CUB.
At the same time, Loehr says the looming caps on carbon emissions will require Wisconsin to look at alternatives to burning coal and natural gas. The state relies on those fossil fuels for some 75 percent of its in-state electric generation.
While a decision on the Badger-Coulee line through Wisconsin won’t come until 2015, utility regulators in Illinois just endorsed a 500-mile transmission line designed to carry thousands of megawatts of electricity from wind farms in Iowa and other plains states into the Chicago market.
That unanimous decision by the Illinois Commerce Commission on the $2 billion Rock Island Clean Line came despite the opposition of Commonwealth Edison, the state’s largest electric utility.
In that case, ratepayers would not pick up the cost. Rather it would be funded by the large wind companies looking for somewhere to sell their power.
Still, if the line is built it could potentially cut into profits of ComEd parent company Exelon, which runs six nuclear power plants in Illinois. ComEd had urged the commission to reject the project, saying it could hurt operations of the local power grid.
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