Midwest power line sparks fight about ‘clean’ energy

Source: By Jeffrey Tomich, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, August 22, 2019

A 100-mile transmission line across southwest Wisconsin is either a pathway for the state’s low-carbon future or a relic of the past that’s increasingly under pressure from more nimble technology, depending on whom you talk to.

The state’s Public Service Commission yesterday agreed with the former characterization, approving the $500 million Cardinal-Hickory Creek line to eastern Iowa on the promise that it will strengthen the regional grid and provide access to low-cost renewable energy.

A joint project of American Transmission Co., ITC Midwest LLC and Dairyland Power Cooperative, the Cardinal-Hickory line is the last of 17 transmission projects in a portfolio approved by the region’s grid operator, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), in 2011.

Almost a decade after it was approved by MISO, the project has divided renewable energy advocates and environmental groups, which dispute whether the line through Wisconsin’s unique and scenic Driftless region would disrupt the landscape. Some say it will unlock more wind and solar energy to help combat climate change, while others argue that there are better solutions to cut emissions that are cost-effective, like the combination of solar power, battery storage and reduced energy use.

The debate at the Wisconsin PSC exposes a new tension as states and utilities aim to transition to low-carbon energy: competition between larger, utility-scale investments that require expensive transmission upgrades — that in some cases can boost fossil fuels — and smaller-scale projects sited closer to where power is needed.

Wisconsin, under Gov. Tony Evers (D), is among the states looking to replace aging fossil fuel generation with cleaner energy. On Friday, Evers signed an executive order creating an Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy, with the goal of making all of the energy consumed in the state 100% carbon-free by 2050.

Joining the governor in the announcement was Rebecca Cameron Valcq, chairperson of the Wisconsin PSC, who said the state needs all the low-cost renewable energy it can get — from within the state and beyond.

Valcq, appointed to the commission by Evers last year, acknowledged that yesterday’s decision was a difficult one. Ultimately, she said, “the risks of not building the line and being wrong are just too great.”

“Getting that clean energy from where it is plentiful to where it is needed and at the scale it is needed … cannot be done without building transmission,” Valcq said.

Opponents to the transmission line, including representatives of conservation groups and cities, counties and school districts, packed hearings and filed hundreds of comments with the PSC throughout months of testimony and hearings. A key argument against the line was that the analysis supporting the project didn’t adequately weigh lower-risk, lower-cost alternative solutions.

“This was really, in our minds, a possible pivot point for renewable energy,” David Clutter, executive director of the Driftless Area Land Conservancy, said in an interview. “We, as the state of Wisconsin, had an opportunity to lead, and we chose not to do that.”

The group’s mission is protection of Wisconsin’s so-called Driftless Area, part of a broader region in the Upper Midwest that escaped the glaciers of the last ice age and lacks the rocks, sands, silts and clay left when glaciers melt away. The area is described by one expert in the case as a “distinct island of irregularity in the otherwise flat Midwest.”

Clutter said the PSC’s decision yesterday stings a little more in the wake of Evers’ election last fall and the commitments he’s made so far to addressing climate change and supporting clean energy.

“It’s a bit of a gut punch, to be honest, for the people of southwest Wisconsin,” he said.

A fossil fuel project?

Opponents’ case for more locally sited clean energy is backed by Jon Wellinghoff, the former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, who submitted testimony on behalf of the conservancy and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.

Wellinghoff, now the chief executive of consultancy GridPolicy Inc., said the combination of solar, energy storage, efficiency and demand response is “more flexible, more in-state, more available at peak when most needed and can be more cost effective” than the transmission line proposed.

Opponents also noted that the energy carried by the Cardinal-Hickory line wouldn’t be solely renewables, but the same mix of nuclear, fossil energy and renewables on the MISO grid, which could, in effect, crowd out wind and solar energy development in Wisconsin.

The $492 million cost of the Cardinal-Hickory line will be shared across a dozen other states in MISO’s northern region, with Wisconsin utility customers paying about 15%, or $66 million to $72 million.

Concerns about the cost and impact on consumers led the attorneys general of Illinois and Michigan to file a brief urging the Wisconsin PSC to require project developers to reassess alternatives before giving approval to the line.

Since MISO approved the line in 2011, “circumstances have changed considerably, requiring additional analysis to avoid an expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars for a line that may not be needed,” Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul (D) and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) said in the brief.

The attorneys general said factors including weaker electricity demand growth, falling costs for distributed solar energy and advances in battery storage should be given more weight.

The Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin also opposed the project for the same reasons.

Tom Content, the group’s executive director, said Wisconsin’s retail electric rates are the second-highest in the Midwest, in part because of billions of dollars invested in transmission projects over the past two decades. Cardinal-Hickory will only further increase those rates.

“Time has passed this project by, given advances in technology that have brought down the cost of alternatives such as solar and storage,” Content said.

Meanwhile, companies developing the project applauded the PSC’s decision.

“This project will help ensure electric reliability and provide access to lower-cost power and renewable energy for all electric users in the region,” ITC Midwest Project Manager Aaron Curtis said in a statement.

Beth Soholt, executive director of the Clean Grid Alliance, likewise said the project will relieve grid congestion and help the region meet rising demand for cleaner energy.

“The demand for more renewable energy is palpable, and the Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line will provide the ability to access and deliver renewables,” she said. “We are seeing an ever-increasing stream of state governments, utilities and corporations announcing plans for more renewable energy because of its low cost and environmental benefits.”

The PSC’s verbal approval yesterday of a certificate of convenience and public necessity for the Wisconsin portion of the project will be finalized in a written order due before the end of September.

Developers also need approvals from the Iowa Utilities Board, which will hear the issue in December, and federal agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Construction of the line is expected to begin in 2021 and take about two years to complete.