A judge has reversed his decision to stop work on a 7-mile stretch of a controversial high-voltage power line through northern La Crosse County.
The town of Holland last year sued to overturn the Wisconsin Public Service Commission’s approval of the Badger-Coulee transmission line, arguing that the panel responsible for protecting utility consumers erred when it authorized a consortium of utility companies to build the nearly $580 million project.
The town also challenged the PSC’s decision to route the line along the Hwy. 53 corridor on separate poles across the highway from another high-voltage line.
Earlier this month, Judge Todd Bjerke denied the town’s primary claim but found the PSC failed to provide a rational basis for the routing. Bjerke also ordered construction of the La Crosse County portion stopped, saying the commission failed to provide supporting documents, including the environmental impact studies.
Attorneys for the PSC appealed the May 1 order, arguing it was based on misunderstandings of the facts and of his authority and that the studies had in fact been submitted to the court. They also said delays would harm Wisconsin ratepayers because the project is expected to mitigate expected overloads on the existing grid between “now and 2023.”
American Transmission Co., which is overseeing construction of the line, argued that stopping work now would delay the project by a full year, costing an additional $2.5 million.
In a ruling released Tuesday, Bjerke maintains the PSC’s siting decision “lacked any rational basis” and ordered the commission to reconsider the issue.
However, he noted that the environmental studies were submitted, though he said he did not have access to them until May 2, and agreed to lift the construction ban, which he acknowledged could cost ratepayers.
Bjerke also wrote that ratepayers could lose even more if the PSC appeals his decision and loses rather than “correct the matter now.”
Holland town clerk Marylin Pedretti said she was frustrated by the ruling, especially as it was issued the day before a hearing where the town’s attorney was prepared to argue for keeping the construction ban in place.
The town board is scheduled to meet in closed session Thursday to decide on a course of action.
“Disappointing is an understatement,” she said. “By the time we go through the courts and everything, it’s going to be built.”
A joint venture of American Transmission Co. and several regional utility companies, including La Crosse-based Dairyland Power Cooperative, the 180-mile line will run between the Madison suburbs and Holmen, where it will connect to another high-voltage line, CapX2020, that runs across Minnesota and western Wisconsin.
The owners say the lines will make the electric grid more reliable and provide a pipeline between remote locations with strong wind resources with population centers like Madison and Milwaukee where the energy is needed. The cost will be shared by customers in 15 Midwestern states and one Canadian province.
Bjerke’s order dismayed Rob Danielson, secretary for SOUL of Wisconsin, a grassroots organization that opposed the line on the grounds it isn’t needed and will be more expensive than alternatives.
“While voicing concerns about fairness to electric customers and a ‘deficient record supporting the final decision’ the judge disappointingly upheld the PSC’s bold refusal to comprehensively evaluate how our energy dollars are spent in Wisconsin,” he wrote. “Energy decision-making must serve the priorities of those who pay the bills, not companies lined up to collect decades of guaranteed, high-interest profit regardless of need.”
ATC began pre-construction on the La Crosse County portion of the line in April. The southernmost segment, in Dane County, is completed, while work is proceeding along I-90/94. The project has yet to secure the necessary federal wetland permits needed for much of the construction.