The chairman of Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission has reversed course and now says he may attend some of the public hearings next week on a proposed high-voltage power line between Holmen and Madison.
As of Wednesday, PSC Chairman Phil Montgomery plans to attend hearings Dec. 9-11 in Holmen, Cashton and Warrens, according to agency spokesman Nathan Conrad.
The three governor-appointed commissioners previously said they did not plan to attend any of the five public hearings on the Badger-Coulee project, a proposed 345-kilovolt power line that is the most expensive transmission project the panel has considered.
The commissioners determine if and where American Transmission Co. and Xcel Energy can build the line, which could encroach on up to 556 residences, as well as farm, forest and public lands.
Both proposed routes would go through Monroe County. One route would follow existing right-of-way along Interstate 94, the second would run through the southern part of the county.
It is expected to cost up to $580 million with Wisconsin electric consumers picking up about 15 percent of the tab.
ATC and Xcel say the line, which would tie in to another high-voltage project now being built between Hampton, Minnesota, and Holmen, would improve system reliability, deliver cheaper power for Wisconsin consumers and provide a pipeline for wind energy from Minnesota and Iowa to population centers to the east.
Opponents say the demand is not there, and the line would allow utilities to profit by trading energy while discouraging more cost-effective alternatives such as energy efficiency and solar power.
Conrad said Commissioner Ellen Nowak is undecided, while Commissioner Eric Callisto will not attend the hearings because his six-year term ends Feb. 28 and he does not expect to be re-appointed.
Conrad said commissioners don’t usually attend the public hearings, which are run by the PSC’s administrative law judge and attended by staff attorneys and engineers. All public comments are transcribed and entered into the record on which commissioners base their decisions.
PSC records indicate commissioners skipped eight of the 10 public hearings on transmission projects held since 2009.
But they did attend hearings in western Wisconsin on the $211 million CapX2020 line, which was approved and is now under construction between Alma and Holmen.
Commissioners also attended public hearings in 2009 on a new $219 million line from Rockdale to West Middleton, the last transmission project of similar scope, though both those hearings were held at the PSC office in Madison.
“Sometimes they’re there, sometimes they’re not,” said Kira Loehr, executive director and general counsel for Wisconsin’s Citizens Utility Board, a nonprofit group that lobbies on behalf of Wisconsin utility customers and an intervenor in the case.
Some opponents feel their pleas aren’t being heard.
“They’re asking people to give up their property,” said Deb Severson of the Citizens Energy Task Force, a grassroots group fighting the project. “They owe it to look in the face of people they’re affecting.”
The commission is expected to issue a final decision in April.
Rob Danielson, spokesman for the group Save Our Unique Lands, complained that when he helped an Amish bishop call to request a meeting with the commissioners they were shunted to a voicemail box.
“He was astonished at the dismissal,” he said. “It’s so disrespectful.”
Both opponents of the project and lawmakers – including state Sen. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, and Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center – have urged commissioners to attend the hearings, scheduled between Dec. 8 – 15 in Waunakee, Holmen, Cashton, Warrens and Wisconsin Dells.
Written comments can be submitted through Jan. 5.
Experts will testify on behalf of applicants, opponents and other interested parties at a technical hearing scheduled for Jan. 6, 2015, in Madison.