MADISON — Wisconsin regulators have given preliminary approval for a controversial power line project through southwest Wisconsin. Members of the Public Service Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to authorize construction of Cardinal-Hickory Creek, a high-voltage transmission line between Dubuque and Middleton that is expected to cost more than $500 million.
The three commissioners, appointed by both Republican and Democratic governors, agreed the line will save money for Wisconsin ratepayers while providing access to cheap, clean wind energy from states to the west.
Acknowledging the difficulty of the decision, Chairwoman Rebecca Valcq said the line will be “a cornerstone” to making the transition from fossil fuels to a clean energy grid.
“I believe the project will provide value to Wisconsin at a reasonable cost,” Valcq said. “Not only will the project enhance reliability; it will provide access to cheaper and cleaner energy.”
Commissioner Mike Huebsch said the decision was difficult and may be the most important the Commission makes this year.
“The economic and reliability benefits outweigh the costs,” Huebsch said. “This project is the best option to provide safe, reliable and affordable energy to meet the needs of our state and provide access to low-cost renewables.”
Commissioner Ellen Nowak said “the risks of not approving this line outweigh the risks of denial,” echoing comments of fellow commissioners.
The Commission is expected to issue a final written order in September, which could be subject to appeal.
A joint venture of ATC, ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power Cooperative, the line will follow a roughly 100-mile route through Cassville, Montfort, Dodgeville and Mount Horeb, primarily along highway corridors.
The costs will be passed on to ratepayers in 12 states, with about $67 million falling to Wisconsin.
The utilities and clean energy advocates said numerous existing and planned wind and solar projects are depending on the line to deliver their full output.
They argued the line will deliver between $23 million and $350 million in net benefits to Wisconsin under “the most plausible” future scenarios studied. In the worst-case scenario, they said, it would cost Wisconsin customers $25 million over 40 years to relieve congestion that is keeping wholesale energy prices higher than in neighboring states.
The utilities praised the Commission decision, saying it will ensure a “reliable, safe transmission system” while supporting renewable resources in a “changing energy environment.” The case drew unprecedented interest, with more than 50 groups and individuals participating in the evaluation process, which drew hundreds of public comments, almost all of them opposed to the line.
Opponents — including conservation groups, the Citizens Utility Board, Dane and Iowa counties and local governments along the route — questioned the public value, saying it would enable little new renewable energy, damage important conservation areas, and result in minimal ratepayer savings.
Dave Clutter, executive director of the Driftless Area Land Conservancy, said the Commission staff had identified more economical alternatives.
“I thought we won on the merits of the case,” he said. “It’s a little shocking.”
George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said the construction and maintenance of the towers would have “significant and undue adverse impacts on environmental values, including land and water resources.”
Meyer said the WWF would continue to challenge the line at other state and federal agencies and if necessary in the courts.
The project will also require approval from the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in order to cross the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge as well as the Iowa Utilities Board.
Cardinal-Hickory Creek is the 17th transmission line the PSC has approved in the past decade and pushes the combined costs to over $2.3 billion. It is the fourth new line through western Wisconsin approved since 2009 and the last since Badger Coulee, a $535 million project connecting Holmen and Middleton that was unsuccessfully challenged in the courts.
According to PSC records dating back to the 1970s, the Commission has never rejected a utility application to build a transmission line.
Spring Green resident Betsy D’Angelo said she was shocked by the decision in light of the hundreds of people who spoke against the project during public hearings this summer, which she called “an excellent example of public involvement.”
“I always knew it was David and Goliath,” she said. “I started having hope. I’m devastated.”