The utility company seeking to build a $500 million power line across southwestern Wisconsin did not thoroughly study the potential of energy storage to head off the need for the project before submitting an application.

The lead planner for American Transmission Co., Tom Dagenais, testified Monday that the company dismissed the potential for storage as too expensive to meet the goals of the high-voltage line known as Cardinal-Hickory Creek.

Cardinal-Hickory Creek map

A joint venture of ATC, ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power Cooperative, the Cardinal-Hickory Creek line would run through more than 100 miles of the Driftless region between Dubuque and Middleton.

The costs would be shared by ratepayers in 12 states, with about $67 million falling to Wisconsin.

During testimony before the Public Service Commission, Dagenais said the company’s “high-level review” of alternatives indicated that conventional batteries would not be able to provide the same level of reliability as the line would and that it would not be cost effective to pursue the types of storage that could.

“There are a number of benefits that a high-voltage backbone project like Cardinal-Hickory Creek can provide that a non-transmission project would be hard to match,” Dagenais said. “You could develop a suite of non-transmission alternatives to try to mimic everything the project does, but the cost would be well into the billions of dollars. It was a non-starter.”

Under questioning from opponents of the project, Dagenais said that ATC had no storage experts on staff and that there was no documentation filed to support the company’s assumptions about the need or costs of storage.

“You haven’t actually calculated the amount of storage required to replace Cardinal-Hickory Creek, have you?” asked Brad Klein, an attorney representing the Driftless Area Land Conservancy, which opposes the project.

“We deemed it unnecessary,” Dagenais said.

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In response to questions from opponents, ATC commissioned a storage expert who estimated it would cost between $194 million and $314 million for a system that would mimic the energy transfer capability of the line to meet basic reliability standards.

Falling prices and technological advances have made utility-scale solar combined with battery storage a cost-effective way to diversify and strengthen the nation’s energy supply, according to a recent study from the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Earlier this year, a solar developer submitted preliminary plans for a 200-megawatt solar farm in Kenosha County that would include a 50-megawatt battery.

Dagenais was the first of many witnesses expected to testify during the weeklong hearing to gather evidence on the needs and potential benefits of the line.

The utilities behind the project and some environmental groups say the line would deliver cheap, clean wind energy from Iowa, saving ratepayers money. Opponents question the public value, saying it would enable little new renewable energy, damage important conservation areas, and result in minimal ratepayer savings.

It will be up to the PSC to determine if the project is in the public interest and, if so, which route it should follow.

The technical hearings are scheduled to continue through Friday at the PSC’s Madison offices and will include testimony and questions from dozens of individuals and organizations.

Members of the public can offer opinions on the project during meetings next week in Madison, Dodgeville and Lancaster.

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that ATC's storage expert estimated it would cost between $194 million and $314 million for a system that would mimic the energy transfer capability of the Cardinal-Hickory Creek line to meet basic reliability standards.]

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