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Joe Orso: Need for proposed transmission line is not clear

COMMENTARY

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Joe Orso

Columnist Joe Orso

American Transmission Co. is proposing a massive expansion of the electrical infrastructure that cuts through our region, but they have as yet failed to clearly answer a simple question: Is the building of about 150 miles of high-voltage transmission lines, which would tower about 150 feet, necessary?

The company is in the early stages of the Badger Coulee Transmission Line Project, and is holding a series of open houses to explain and get feedback on potential corridors for the 345-kilovolt line that would enter Wisconsin in the La Crosse area and run to Dane County.

On Wednesday at the Cashton Community Hall, I sat down with Sarah Justus, manager of local relations for the company, explained that I was skeptical about the project and wanted to know simply where the need is coming from. If I can get electricity anywhere any time I want, it seems we must have more than enough, so why the project?

Answer: American Transmission Company has to project needs 10 or 20 years out, she explained.

And so that would mean they see Wisconsin electricity needs increasing in coming years, right?

Well, not necessarily. Electricity needs, I learned, are only one factor among many they consider when planning projects to meet future electricity needs.

“There is not only demand,” Justus said, “but looking at what we expect in the generation of power. Is it going to change? Do we expect carbon constraints that reduce coal power? Do we expect more wind power?”

Under each scenario, she said, the benefits of the project outweigh the cost.

I asked for details about those scenarios, and Justus said these are hard to summarize in a nutshell. So she invited Dale Burmester, manager of major projects, into the interview to help explain.

From Burmester I learned that Minnesota and the Dakotas have a higher potential of producing wind power than Wisconsin, and this line would connect us to these potential sources.

So does this mean the lines would decrease our use of coal and increase our use of wind power?

Well, not exactly.

Regardless of whether these lines are built, Wisconsin is mandated to get 10 percent of its energy from renewable resources by 2015.

“This line isn’t driven by any one particular need or benefit,” Burmester said. “It’s a combination of things: reliability benefits, efficiency benefits, access to renewables and economic benefits.”

The project, he said, would mean we avoid spending $180 million to upgrade low-voltage transmission infrastructure.

But if we spent the $180 million, wouldn’t we avoid the $425 million Badger Coulee Project?

Yes, we would.

But the $425 million dollars spent would lead to other savings from a more efficient system, he said, and they have done research showing economic benefits to the region if they build the high-voltage lines.

These were kind people who were generous with their time and patient with my questions. But by the end of the conversation, my head was spinning and I had to apologize for being slow in my ability to comprehend why this project is necessary.

I was glad to find out I am not the only one who has failed to get a clear answer on this.

Down the road on Wednesday, people from across the region attended an open house at the Cashton Park organized by groups challenging the proposed project: Save Our Unique Lands (SOUL) of the Kickapoo and town of Stark Committee on Energy Planning and Information.

Those present expressed concerns about property decreasing in value, environmental damage, health effects on humans and how the towering lines would affect tourism in a region known for its natural beauty.

If people are being asked to make sacrifices, said Keith Ashley-Wright, president of SOUL, the burden of providing clear information goes up.

“Our biggest focus right now is assessing the need,” he said.

One of the proposed corridors for the lines runs through the town of Stark in La Farge.

After residents there raised concerns about the project, the town board appointed a committee to study the transmission company’s proposal and help citizens get answers.

Other municipalities are doing the same.

Since meeting with company officials this spring, seven  have passed resolutions stating there has been an insufficient justification for need of the high-voltage lines, said Rob Danielson, a member of the Stark committee and of SOUL.

“We do not deserve to be sent around in circles,” he said in a phone interview.

The proposed project is certainly not a done deal. American Transmission Company doesn’t plan to file an application until 2013. The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin will make the final decision.

ON THE WEB

Those on both sides of the issue encouraged Coulee Region residents to get involved. More information can be found at www.soulofthekickapoo.org, www.badgercoulee.com, and tn.stark.wi.gov.

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