Wisconsin regulators have given preliminary approval for a controversial power line project through southwestern Wisconsin.
Members of the Public Service Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to authorize construction of Cardinal-Hickory Creek, a high-voltage transmission line between Dubuque and Middleton that is expected to cost about $492 million.
The three commissioners, appointed by both Republican and Democratic governors, agreed the line will save money for Wisconsin ratepayers while providing access to cheap, clean wind energy from states to the west.
Acknowledging the difficulty of the decision, chairwoman Rebecca Valcq said the line will be “a cornerstone” to making the transition from fossil fuels to a clean energy grid.
“I believe the project will provide value to Wisconsin at a reasonable cost,” Valcq said. “Not only will the project enhance reliability; it will provide access to cheaper and cleaner energy.”
Commissioner Mike Huebsch said the decision was difficult and may be the most important the PSC makes this year.
“The economic and reliability benefits outweigh the costs,” Huebsch said. “This project is the best option to provide safe, reliable and affordable energy to meet the needs of our state and provide access to low-cost renewables.”
Commissioner Ellen Nowak said “the risks of not approving this line outweigh the risks of denial,” echoing comments of fellow commissioners.
The PSC is expected to issue a final written order in September, which could be subject to appeal.
A joint venture of American Transmission Co., ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power Cooperative, the line will follow a roughly 100-mile route through Cassville, Lancaster, Montfort, Dodgeville and Mount Horeb, primarily along highway corridors.
It is the last of 17 “multi-value” projects — determined to provide a combination of reliability and economic value and deliver renewable energy — approved nearly a decade ago by the regional agency that controls the grid and energy markets in Wisconsin and 14 other states.
Costs for such projects are shared by ratepayers of utilities using the lines. Wisconsin’s share is expected to be roughly $67 million.
The utilities and clean-energy advocates said numerous existing and planned wind and solar projects are depending on the line to deliver their full output.
They argued the line will deliver between $23 million and $350 million in net benefits to Wisconsin under “the most plausible” future scenarios studied. In the worst-case scenario, they said, it would cost Wisconsin customers $25 million over 40 years to relieve congestion that is keeping wholesale energy prices higher than in neighboring states.
The utilities praised the PSC decision, saying it will ensure a “reliable, safe transmission system” while supporting renewable resources in a “changing energy environment.”
The case drew unprecedented interest, with more than 50 groups and individuals participating in the evaluation process, which drew hundreds of public comments, almost all of them opposed to the line.
Opponents — including conservation groups, the Citizens Utility Board, Dane and Iowa counties and local governments along the route — questioned the public value.
CUB director Tom Content said the decision leaves customers at risk that the costs won’t be offset by the cheap wind energy promised and that the application left too many questions unanswered.
Rob Danielson, who fought the project on behalf of SOUL, a group formed to resist power line projects, said the PSC lacks the courage to stand up for ratepayers.
“The approval … shows a commission determined to keep Wisconsin entrenched in costly, century-old policies,” he said. “Elsewhere, similar proposals have failed because builders have not been able to demonstrate their value.”
Dave Clutter, executive director of the Driftless Area Land Conservancy, said the Commission’s own staff had identified more economical alternatives.
“I thought we won on the merits of the case,” he said. “It’s a little shocking.”
Four Democratic lawmakers from the area — Sen. Jon Erpenbach and Reps. Dave Considine, Dianne Hesselbein and Sondy Pope — issued a statement slamming the decision.
“This project may have substantial impacts on rates and fixed-fee increases for electric customers overall, while affecting numerous farms, properties and habitats,” the lawmakers said. “To say that we are disappointed at the decision to go through with this project would be an understatement.”
Republican state Sen. Howard Marklein of Spring Green, who pushed the PSC to study alternatives, acknowledged the work of his constituents in shaping the discussion.
“I appreciate the difficult deliberative work of the PSC Commissioners and I trust that they took my concerns – and those of my constituents – into consideration while studying the project proposal,” Marklein said. “It appears that they determined that the project will have value, especially in light of Governor Tony Evers’ recent Executive Order to make Wisconsin 100% carbon-free 2050.”
George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said the construction and maintenance of the towers would have “significant and undue adverse impacts on environmental values, including land and water resources.”
Meyer said the WWF would continue to challenge the line at other state and federal agencies and if necessary in the courts.
The project will also require approval from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in order to cross the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge as well as the Iowa Utilities Board.
Cardinal-Hickory Creek is the 17th transmission line the PSC has approved in the past decade and pushes the combined costs to over $2.3 billion. It is the fourth new line through western Wisconsin approved since 2009 and the last since Badger Coulee, a $535 million project connecting Holmen and Middleton that was unsuccessfully challenged in the courts.
According to PSC records dating back to the 1970s, the commission has never rejected a utility application to build a transmission line.
Spring Green resident Betsy D’Angelo said she was shocked by the decision in light of the hundreds of people who spoke against the project during public hearings this summer, which she called “an excellent example of public involvement.”
“I always knew it was David and Goliath,” she said. “I started having hope. I’m devastated.”
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a comment from state Sen. Howard Marklein, which was inadvertently omitted in an earlier version.]