A La Crosse County judge has temporarily halted work on a 7-mile stretch of a controversial high-voltage power line between the La Crosse and Madison areas while denying a local community’s effort to stop the line entirely.
The town of Holland asked the court 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.
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.
In a written ruling issued Monday, Judge Todd Bjerke determined the PSC “properly determined that Badger-Coulee … was needed to provide an adequate supply of electric energy to the La Crosse area, despite a deficient record supporting” the decision.
But Bjerke also found the PSC failed to provide a rational basis for its decision to route the line along the Hwy. 53 corridor parallel to another high-voltage transmission line but on separate poles often on opposite sides of the highway.
Bjerke ordered the PSC to re-evaluate siting of the line in the contested portion through the town and ordered that work on that stretch be halted until the commission has complied with his order.
PSC spokeswoman Elise Nelson said the agency was still reviewing the ruling and did not yet have a timeline for reconsidering the siting decision.
Holland Clerk Marilyn Pedretti had mixed reactions to the ruling, saying she was pleased that Bjerke recognized the lack of justification for not requiring ATC to share poles with CapX2020, though she was disappointed the judge deferred to the PSC’s approval of the line, which she and other opponents contend is unnecessary given the recent lack of growth in electricity use.
“It’s like adding on to a house after the kids have left,” she said. “There is no need and it’s not fiscally responsible.”
ATC, which is spearheading the project, began pre-construction work on the La Crosse County portion of the line in April. ATC spokeswoman Kaya Freiman said the company would continue work on other segments until cleared by the court to proceed. The southernmost segment, in Dane County, is completed, while ATC has yet to secure the necessary federal wetland permits needed for much of the construction.
Freiman said it’s not clear if the injunction would delay completion of the line, scheduled for late 2018.
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.
The town argued that Badger-Coulee is not necessary to keep the lights on in western Wisconsin.
According to data from the Energy Information Administration, electricity use has been relatively flat since 2007. Over the decade ending in 2014 (the last year for which EIA data are available), the nation’s electricity sales grew by about 0.6 percent per year. In Wisconsin, where manufacturing represents a larger chunk of the economy, growth has been only about 0.2 percent.
But the PSC decided Badger-Coulee met the statute in broader ways: eliminating the need for other projects, lowering costs and providing “reliable, affordable, and clean electric energy.”
While deferring to the PSC’s decision on need, Bjerke chastised the commission for failing to provide him with supporting documents, including its environmental impact studies.
“The Court can only conclude, on the basis of the record before it, that the missing documents were to keep the Court from considering the actual facts,” Bjerke wrote. “That, coupled with the distain (sic) for Holland that first came out of the mouth of the attorney for the PSCW at the beginning of his argument before this Court last October, leads this Court to believe that the interests of the public was not truly in the forefront of the PSCW as they approved this Project on behalf of the Applicants.”