A 150-mile transmission line project proposed for south central Wisconsin could slow electrical cost increases, but wildlife advocates warn it could come at a high price for birds.
Officials from American Transmission Co. LLC, Waukesha, are in the early stages of meeting with affected communities to discuss potential routes for the $425 million project that would stretch from La Crosse to northern Dane County. The company just completed eight community information sessions, where 2,300 local residents shared their concerns.
Among those concerned are representatives from the Madison Audubon Society, which oversees more than 600 acres of land at Goose Pond Sanctuary, a nesting and migratory site for birds near the village of Arlington.
Peter Cannon, president of the society, said several of the proposed transmission routes would infringe on portions of the sanctuary and one would travel straight through, putting thousands of birds at risk of injury or death.
“The wires themselves, the birds run into, and it probably has more impact on the migrants than the resident birds because the resident birds get to know the neighborhood, where the migrants will be someplace else tomorrow night,” Cannon said. “By definition, a grassland doesn’t have tall structures in it, so putting in tall structures have a very significant impact on breeding.”
The project could provide several benefits to Wisconsin residents, however, including slowing the cost of electrical price increases. The proposed line would allow state utilities to access wholesale electricity in a more efficient way, ATC Spokeswoman Anne Spaltholz said.
“This allows them to buy and sell power, which can slow the level of (cost) increases,” she said.
Other benefits include improved electrical grid efficiency and reliability, according to the company.
The routes under consideration still are just options, Spaltholz said, and some will be eliminated as the company works with concerned parties.
“We asked residents to tell us things about their communities, to help us determine which we should keep,” she said. “We had to find out things we don’t know that we can’t see on our maps.”
Part of the project approval will include working with the state Department of Natural Resources to work out environmental concerns, said Kaya Freiman of ATC.
“When we work on all our projects, we work with the DNR,” she said. “Later in the phase they have to review anything we do that might affect the environment. After we file our application with the Public Service Commission, there’s a series of steps and one of them is to complete an environmental impact statement.”
The project’s potential environmental impact was among the chief concerns from residents so far, Freiman said. Those concerns will be part of the considerations ATC uses to determine preliminary routes next spring, she said.
“We take quite a few things into consideration: There’s the public input, cost, constructability, impact on the land, land use issues — we look at all those,” she said.
The project will be a balancing act, Freiman said, to find the best possible route for the line with the least amount of infringement on sensitive areas. Spaltholz said ATC had another round of community meetings planned for next spring, when the company plans to greatly reduce its list of corridors considered for the project.
Cannon hopes the birds are a factor in that decision, as power lines can also alter the creatures‘ nesting habits, he said.
“It’s always been a migratory stopping point, so in the spring, there’s a four-week period we average about 2,500 Canada geese a day and about 100 tundra swans a day,” Cannon said of the sanctuary. “If you have 2,500 Canada geese working in and out of an area, the more likely there will be collisions.”
He questioned whether there is a need for more power lines.
“As near as I can tell, the chance ATC will ever decide to not build a power line is zero and I don’t know what we do about that,” Cannon said.
Spaltholz said the company employed a team of engineers who constantly were looking at future needs to identify areas of the state that could use upgraded infrastructure. Residents in the area being considered for the project didn’t have any major power issues at this time, she said.
Cannon said he worried there always would be a push for more power lines.
“My guess is, in 300 years, the state will be one large power line,” he said, “because ATC will find excuses to build more until they can’t jam one more in.”