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Transmission project wins state approval

Paul Snyder
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The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin on Thursday approved construction of a major transmission line from Rockdale to West Middleton.

The 345-kilovolt project, which the American Transmission Co. LLC first proposed in 2005, was at the center of extensive debate for the last four years involving such topics as necessity, routes, environmental effects and whether it should run above or below ground.

ATC spokeswoman Sarah Justus said the company is pleased the PSC recognized the project’s necessity. Construction will start in 2011.

Although ATC maintained the line is needed to avoid blackouts in coming years, opponents —including the city of Madison and citizens groups such as Preserve Our Rural Landscape Ltd. — argued ATC overstated the need.

PSC Chairman Eric Callisto said at a hearing Thursday that the growing energy demands make Dane County’s need for the line unquestionable. He said it is possible the commission is jumping the gun by approving the line now, but, given the potential for blackouts in the next few years without the system, he called it a reasonable risk.

Commissioner Mark Meyer agreed, saying underestimating growth in population and energy demand is akin to expecting growth will not occur.

“When it does,” he said, “then we can say, ‘Oops,’ light a few candles and decide to build a better system in the future.”

Commissioners said the cases made by opponents failed to demonstrate ATC was exaggerating the need. Jim Danky, director of the rural landscape group, said he believes in the arguments his group made, but he understands the commission’s ruling.

“We did what we could,” he said. “But you also have to consider that you had a group of citizens matching up against a billion-dollar company.”

However, Danky said he was encouraged by the PSC’s recommendation the transmission line follow a 32-mile route cutting mostly through urban areas and along Madison’s Beltline Highway.

Madison leaders and other groups, including Coalition for an Underground Alternative, had lobbied for ATC to put the segment of transmission line along the Beltline underground to preserve aesthetics and protect environmentally sensitive areas such as the University of Wisconsin Arboretum.

But commissioners said the added expense — ATC estimated burying portions of the line could add $300 million to the cost — would be too much of a burden on ratepayers.

“The Beltline is already aesthetically impaired,” said Commissioner Lauren Azar at Thursday’s hearing. “I suspect few people that travel the Beltline do so to take in the scenery.”

Danky said he appreciates the commissioners’ concern for the environment if the line was to instead cut through rural lands, but he said the PSC can do more to encourage energy conservation.

“Need can be looked at in terms of conservation and system reliability,” he said. “I think the PSC has an opportunity to become more involved in encouraging conservation.”

Azar said as much Thursday, but added an increased effort by Dane County property owners to conserve energy would not eliminate the need for more transmission capacity.

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