Debate on power lines: clean energy or environmental damage?

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MADISON, Wisconsin – Stress goes away when Dena Kurt is on the water. She paddles the Mississippi River for about 15 hours a week, but she could stay on the river twice as long when she trains for canoe marathon races.

“My favorite times for paddling are early in the morning or in the evening, when the wildlife start to lay down or come out to play,” Kurt said.

The Grant County resident paddles the river from near Galena, Ill. To Wyalusing in the north, gliding through the Upper Mississippi River National Fish and Wildlife Sanctuary. In the shallow backwaters of the refuge, Kurt said she felt like she was millions of miles away.

The Federal Wildlife Refuge is a refuge not only for it, but also for fish, wildlife and migratory birds that use it as a breeding ground in the Mississippi Flyway. Millions of birds fly through the refuge, and it is the only stopping point that remains for many migrating birds.

Kurt said she was concerned they, along with other rare and endangered species, could be in danger if multiple utilities are allowed to build her $ 492 million Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line through the refuge, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

“I don’t go out on the river to look at the high voltage transmission lines. I don’t go out on the river to listen to them hum,” Kurt said. “I go out on the river to find the wilderness. I go out on the river to get away from all our man-made constructions, and it’s getting harder and harder to do that.”

American Transmission Co., ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power Cooperative, co-owners of the project, recently announced that they are starting work on the east segment of the 345 kilovolt power line in Dane County. The line would run from there 102 miles to Dubuque County in Iowa. The owners of the project say it will help connect renewables to the regional power grid, support carbon emission reduction targets and relieve system congestion.

The transmission line is the target of multiple legal challenges in state and federal courts brought by the Driftless Area Land Conservancy and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. Opponents say the project, with its nearly 20-story towers, threatens farms, rural communities, refuge and the scenic landscape of the Driftless area in southern Wisconsin.

The groups are questioning state and federal government approval of the project. They argue that construction must be stopped to avoid environmental damage that cannot be reversed once work has started.

On the same day that utilities began working, U.S. District Judge William Conley granted a preliminary injunction to prevent construction in and around federal waters, agreeing that environmental groups are likely to suffer “irreparable” environmental damage. .

The judge’s ruling should prompt ATC and the other co-owners of the project to put its plans on hold and review the entire project, according to Howard Learner, senior counsel representing the groups and executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

“Let’s see if there are better alternatives here to get the clean energy results the public wants, and to do it in a way that doesn’t harm the environment as much and saves money for them. consumers, ”Learner said.

The owners of the project said in a statement that they were disappointed with the judge’s order, but note that it only affects about 15 acres of federal waters along the Wisconsin portion of the project.

“So therefore, and in the meantime, utilities can continue construction of the project in Wisconsin in those areas that are not affected by a preliminary injunction,” said Alissa Braatz, spokesperson for the co-owners of the project.

Braatz argues the line is needed because 114 projects comprising 17 gigawatts of renewable power generation depend on it to deliver electricity to millions of homes as part of the clean energy transition. Residents like Kurt and environmental groups would like project owners to look at other alternatives like rooftop solar and battery storage.

RENEW Wisconsin officials said they believe the transmission line is necessary for Wisconsin to meet its goal of carbon-free electricity use by 2050. Michael Vickerman, RENEW’s policy director, said there was no silver bullet to help the state switch to clean energy. He noted that 60% of all renewable energy production serving Wisconsin’s electricity providers currently comes from out of state.

“We’re going to need lots and lots of different approaches, strategies to get closer to the 2050 net zero goals, but Cardinal-Hickory Creek and drivetrain upgrades in general is a strategy we can hardly do without.” , said Vickerman.

But opponents of the project continue to fight in state court to stop construction of the line elsewhere in Wisconsin.

In a case in state court, Dane County Circuit Court Judge Jacob Frost recently granted a temporary injunction to stop work on the line if the groups could post a $ 32 million bond for pay for project delays as part of a state law requirement.

Learner said he asked the judge to reconsider the amount of the bond, noting that his clients could not afford it. He maintains that the obligation to pay millions of dollars also violates the rights of his clients under US and state constitutions.

“The judges ruled that we would probably be successful on the merits … but unless you can post a $ 32 million bond, they can do whatever they want anyway, and that’s not fair,” Learner said. “It is not constitutional.”

Lawyers for the Environmental Law and Policy Center sent a letter advising Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul of the groups’ constitutional challenge, saying the case raises questions about access to justice. They urge Kaul to make Frost understand that the requirement for a $ 32 million bond violates federal and Wisconsin constitutional law.

Braatz argues that the co-owners of the project can move ahead with construction unless the groups post the $ 32 million bond, adding an injunction would cause delays and additional costs.

“This would delay the benefits of the central project for electricity consumers and ultimately add unnecessary costs to the investment project, which will ultimately be passed on to energy consumers,” Braatz said.

Wisconsin taxpayers are already expected to pay around $ 67 million of the total project costs, and utilities estimate that a 60-day injunction on the entire route in Wisconsin would add an additional $ 12.7 million overall total.

Tom Content, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, said he was concerned about the bail requirement in state court, noting that it could impact customers’ ability to challenge utility operations. in future cases. He would also like to see a resolution on the possibility of going ahead with the project.

“So there is no need to worry about customer money being spent for no reason,” Content said.

Federal and state judges have ruled that environmental groups can win their case on the merits of lawsuits against the Civil Service Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies.

The case before Frost specifically challenges the authorization of the project by the Wisconsin Civil Service Commission, claiming that two commission members should have recused themselves due to a perceived conflict of interest.

PSC President Rebecca Cameron Valcq previously worked as a lawyer for a law firm representing We Energies whose parent company, WEC Energy Group, owns around 60% of ATC. At the time of the decision, Huebsch was a member of the advisory board of the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), which operates the regional power grid and supports the project. Both argued that they were not biased in their review of the project.

The court will hear arguments on the merits of the agency’s approval of the project on November 19, but the court will not accept any allegations of bias.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has agreed to hear whether Huebsch’s dealings with utility workers constitute a conflict of interest that could invalidate the PSC’s approval of the project. The line owners revealed that Huebsch sent encrypted messages to an ATC employee and a former ITC independent contractor in June. They asked the PSC if they could reapply for the project, but regulators did not act on their request.

In the federal case, groups allege that several agencies violated federal law by authorizing the line. They say the Army Corps violated the National Environmental Policy Act by granting a blanket permit because the agency did not consider other alternatives to reduce environmental impacts.

Conley found that the groups may have “some likelihood of success” because there is no evidence to show that the Corps analyzed whether the project had cumulative environmental effects that were “no more than minimal.” The judge also asked if the project qualifies for a general permit.

A decision in the federal case is expected within the next 30 to 60 days, and the injunction will remain in effect until then.

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