Summertime in Wisconsin is special. It’s a time for putting the boat on the lake, firing up the grill, going to the town park for a concert.
So why did over a thousand people spend three precious summer days crammed into meeting rooms to attend Public Service Commission hearings? These hearings are usually sleepy affairs sparsely attended by lawyers and engineers.
The reason: widespread and heartfelt opposition to a proposal to slash a gaping, 120-mile-long wound through the heart of Wisconsin’s Driftless region. The American Transmission Company wants to construct a massive high-voltage transmission line which would erect more than 600 towers, each as high as a 17-story building. The project would also clear hundreds of feet of land on either side of its 120-mile length.
More than a thousand citizens overflowed rooms in Lancaster, Madison and Dodgeville at the end of June to voice their opposition to ATC’s plans. In addition, more than 1,000 people filed written comments on the PSC’s website before it crashed. The testimony at the jam-packed hearings came from farmers, school districts, environmentalists, local businesses, community leaders and land owners.
Opposition to the project is multifaceted. Farmers are concerned about what will happen to their livelihood. The state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection says the line “would impact significant acres of farmland.” Landowners are concerned that ATC, a for-profit corporation owned by electric utility companies, will be authorized to seize their land without their permission. As many as 895 property owners may be affected. Residents and community leaders who cherish the haunting beauty of the Driftless, Wisconsin’s rugged, unglaciated southwestern corner, are appalled by the visual blight and environmental harm of the massive project.
At a time when bipartisan agreement is rare, all the legislators from the affected area, both Democratic and Republican, have written the PSC with grave concerns about the ATC proposal. Both Iowa and Dane Counties have weighed in with opposition.
But it’s not just folks who live near the path of the project, known as Cardinal-Hickory Creek, who have spoken out. The Citizens Utility Board, which represents Wisconsin’s residential and small business ratepayers, called on the PSC to reject the project. They are concerned that the project, which they deem outdated and unneeded, will raise the already high rates we pay for electricity. While construction costs for the CHC will top half a billion dollars, that’s only the start of the cost for ratepayers. Your electric bill will reflect a profit for ATC of 10.3% of the construction cost every year for 40 years, a cost to Midwest consumers that will eventually total in the billions.
CUB called the CHC line “outdated technology.” The technology for the generation and provision of electric energy is rapidly changing, but the justification for the line is rooted in what experts have called a “1990s approach.” Consumers could very likely be socked with 40 years of higher electric bills for an outmoded white elephant.
Conservation groups — The Driftless Area Land Conservancy and Wisconsin Wildlife Federation — summed it well in their comments. Noting the potential profit windfall for ATC if the project is approved, they said ATC is “stuck in their highly-profitable past of huge capital investments, but, on behalf of the Wisconsin public and consumers, the PSC must not be.”
To their credit, the Public Service Commission gave the public the chance to have their say. They will decide in September whether to approve the project. The question now is: Will the PSC listen to the public or bow down to the profit-hungry ATC?
Spencer Black served for 26 years in the state Legislature. He was chair of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee and the Assembly Democratic leader. Since leaving the Legislature, Black has been vice president for conservation for the national Sierra Club and adjunct professor of planning at UW-Madison.
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