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Transmission upgrades could trump power projects

Paul Snyder
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If Wisconsin improves the efficiency of its energy transmission lines, the state will not need to generate as much power.

Renewable energy development and the state’s long-term goals for such projects could take a backseat if Wisconsin does not need as much power, said Todd Stuart, executive director of the Madison-based Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group.

“On one hand, improved transmission lines save more energy and create more breathing space,” he said.

“And on the other hand, we need to fulfill these renewable mandates.”

The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin’s Strategic Energy Assessment earlier this month reported the state will not need new baseload generation at least through 2014. On top of that, Minnesota last week gave an initial green light for the CapX2020 project, a 345-kilovolt transmission line to run through four states including Wisconsin.

Those two factors combined, Stuart said, tip the scales against spending millions on renewable energy.

“Renewable power is still seen as intermittent power, but even if you’re going to create 2,000 megawatts of power, it’s still around $2.5 million per megawatt (to develop),” he said. “Some people might debate the price, but whatever it is, it’s going to cost billions of dollars.”

State Rep. Phil Montgomery, R-Green Bay, said the cost and necessity of new energy generation could influence legislative approvals of any proposed project, be it coal, natural gas or renewable.

“In the transmission system upgrades we have made in the last few years, we’ve been able to save a lot of power and capture losses,” he said. “Just as we’re asking homeowners to be more efficient with windows and other items, we have to be efficient, too.

“If we don’t lose power to line loss, does it affect our discussion on creating more renewable power? Very much so. Not having to erect 60 windmills can have a positive effect on taxpayers and utility rates.”

The state wants to generate 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2015 and knock down local barriers impeding wind farm development. Yet Montgomery said it is likely Wisconsin will purchase a lot of wind power from states such as Iowa and Minnesota.

Stuart also expects the state to import wind energy from other states, likely through transmission lines such as CapX2020 and the estimated $12 billion Green Power Express, a 765-kilovolt line planned to run from the Dakotas to Chicago.

The PSC has not yet received an application for the CapX2020 project, said spokesman Tim Le Monds, but it is expecting one this summer. The PSC maintains any new generation projects should work toward the state’s renewable goals.

Imported power could provide incentive for Wisconsin to keep developing energy sources even with low demand at home, Montgomery said.

“I’m a free-market guy,” he said. “If there’s electricity being generated in Green Bay that I can sell to other states and there’s a bigger market for those kinds of renewable projects, I think it provides the incentive for people to build it.

“We just have to find a balanced approach.”

But Stuart said the balance already is lacking. Arbitrary state and federal goals, rather than actual need, are driving renewable energy development, regardless of the cost, he said.

“The thing is,” Stuart said, “if you’ve got these mandates, you kind of have to do it.”

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