TAYLOR — Despite an ongoing legal challenge, a new high-voltage power line is taking shape in Jackson County with some help from above.
A crew piloting a massive helicopter spent the week erecting steel towers along a roughly eight-mile stretch of rugged terrain between Black River Falls and Blair for the project known as Badger Coulee.
A joint venture of American Transmission Co. and utilities including Xcel and La Crosse-based Dairyland Power Cooperative, the 180-mile line between La Crosse and Madison will connect to the new CapX2020 high-voltage line, which brings power from Minnesota.
ATC says it will lower electricity costs and improve reliability while delivering cheap, clean wind energy. Opponents argue it’s an unnecessary expense that will guarantee profits for the owners while discouraging conservation and local renewable energy investments.
The costs will be shared by electricity customers in 15 Midwestern states and one Canadian province. Wisconsin customers will pay about 15 percent of the total cost.
While most of the steel towers, which stretch up to 165 feet into the air, are assembled with cranes, ATC’s contractors are using Erickson Aviation Services’ S-64 Skycrane to place structures in hard-to-reach places.
“This is hill country,” project construction manager Ken Jaquet said while navigating an icy dirt access road winding through the right-of-way.
While a ground crew can put up two or three structures a day, the helicopter can do up to nine.
“Of course there’s a cost,” Jaquet added.
With the ability to lift a 25,000-pound load, the Skycrane burns about 800 gallons of fuel per hour, and costs mount by the minute.
According to a quarterly report filed this week with state regulators, the project is on schedule to be in service by December and is about $20 million under the approved budget of $581 million.
ATC has begun clearing some right-of-way in La Crosse and Trempealeau counties, though the company has yet to secure all the necessary easements. Negotiations with landowners is also continuing in Juneau, Monroe and Jackson counties. Crews have also finished grading land near the Briggs Road substation in Holmen.
Construction is largely complete on the portion of the line south of Wisconsin Dells, and a small segment of the line in Dane County was electrified in October.
Appeals court weighs challenge
Meanwhile the Wisconsin Court of Appeals is considering a challenge from the town of Holland, which sought to overturn the Wisconsin Public Service Commission’s approval of the project as well as its decision to route the line along the Hwy. 53 corridor, parallel to the CapX line but on separate poles — often on either side of the highway.
La Crosse County Judge Todd Bjerke denied the town’s primary claim but found the PSC’s siting decision lacked “any rational basis” and ordered the commission to reconsider requests to put both lines on the same towers.
The town appealed, arguing the PSC’s determination of necessity — the basic requirement for allowing a project to be constructed at ratepayer expense — was based on an incorrect interpretation of state law. The PSC also appealed Bjerke’s order to reconsider the route.
The town’s key argument is one that opponents of the line have made all along: that it does not meet the statutory requirements of such a large expenditure.
Under state law, the Public Service Commission may only approve a project of this scope, which is ultimately paid for by utility customers, if it “satisfies the reasonable needs of the public for an adequate supply of electric energy.”
Just three years earlier, the PSC had granted ATC permission to build CapX2020 on the grounds that it was needed to ensure reliability for the La Crosse area. When it came to Badger Coulee, the commission instead found the project would provide “reliability benefits.”
Town attorney Frank Jablonski argues that La Crosse’s needs were already met by the CapX line.
The project owners — and the PSC — contend Badger Coulee will be needed to meet peak demand within a decade.
The PSC also says projects can satisfy “the reasonable needs of the public” in different ways. By using the plural word “needs,” the Commission argues, the Legislature recognized that different energy needs can be satisfied by different types of projects.
According to the PSC, state law requires judges to defer to the Commission’s expertise in making decisions, saying it’s not the court’s place to set state energy policy or to decide if the project is in the public interest.
The town also contests the secondary rationale — that building Badger-Coulee would offset the need for $190 million in other work.
“It is manifestly irrational to spend (approximately) $600+ million to solve problems that even the Project’s proponents can only ascribe a cost of less than $200 million,” the brief states.
The PSC notes that those avoided costs are in addition to net economic benefits, which it estimates will result in savings of $118 million and $702 million for consumers.
With no fuel costs, wind energy can offset the need for more expensive power sources, such as coal. There are significant wind resources in Minnesota and the Dakotas, but there aren’t enough high-voltage lines to efficiently send that electricity to more densely populated areas in Wisconsin.
It’s estimated that Badger Coulee will allow the development of about 2,750 megawatts of new wind generation capacity, equal to roughly a third of Wisconsin’s current coal-fired capacity.
Photos: Badger Coulee construction in Jackson County(tncms-asset)20079f64-0860-11e8-9883-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)