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Home / 2010 Newsmakers of the Year / Illinois, Michigan join critics urging PSC to reject $500M transmission line

Illinois, Michigan join critics urging PSC to reject $500M transmission line

Attorneys general in Michigan and Illinois last week asked Wisconsin regulators to reject a half-billion-dollar transmission line project in southwest Wisconsin, taking an unprecedented step that further bolsters what is already strong opposition to the project.

A joint letter from Democratic attorneys general Kwame Raoul, of Illinois, and Dana Nessel, of Michigan, asks the Wisconsin Public Service Commission to block the proposed Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line. If built, the project would run from Middleton to Dubuque, Iowa. The cost of that work, which could vary from $474 million to $560 million, would be borne by ratepayers in 12 states. Wisconsin would shoulder 15% of the total, Illinois residents 10% and Michigan ratepayers 21%.

The letter echoes critics of the project who argue that the circumstances that might have justified the project when it was approved in 2011 by the Mid-Continent Independent System Operator, or MISO, have changed in the years since. Demand for electricity remains flat, and the increasing use of local solar generation and improvements in battery storage are undermining the need to use long-distance lines to transmit renewable energy.

“In light of the substantial costs associated with the project both for Wisconsin and for Illinois and Michigan consumers, it is necessary to step back and recognize that circumstances have changed enough since 2011 to require the applicants to provide updated transmission alternatives before receiving approval to construct the line,” according to the letter.

There is no precedent for a statement of this sort from officials in Michigan and Illinois. Matt Sweeney, spokesman for the PSC, said the agency is “unaware” of other cases in which an attorney general from another state has been formally opposed to a transmission line project.

According to the plans approved in 2011, the 100-mile Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line would be developed by Dairyland Power Cooperative, American Transmission Co. and ITC Midwest. In a statement, the ATC spokeswoman Alissa Braatz said the utilities “respectfully disagree” with the positions taken by Michigan and Illinois.

MISO, a Carmel, Indiana-based nonprofit group that regulates the electrical grid in the Midwest, approved the Cardinal-Hickory project in 2011, along with a group of 17 so-called “multi-value projects,” which were intended to transmit renewable energy and lower general energy costs. If approved, the Cardinal-Hickory project will be the last of these projects to be built.

MISO pushed back against Illinois and Michigan’s criticism in a letter filed with the PSC on Tuesday, arguing that their complaint had been filed improperly.

“Wisconsin ratepayers are currently sharing the costs of five major regional transmission projects in Illinois and one underway, as well as one completed project in Michigan,” said the ATC spokeswoman Alissa Braatz in a statement. “It is appropriate that electric customers in Michigan and Illinois share in the costs of the Cardinal-Hickory Creek Transmission Line Project.”

The project has also attracted its fair share of critics in Wisconsin.

A letter filed with the PSC on July 16 and signed by Sen. Howard Marklein, of Spring Green, Rep. Travis Tranel, of Cuba City, and Rep. Todd Novak, of Dodgeville — all Republicans — noted that the public hearings that have been held on the project have attracted hundreds of their constituents, many of whom were opposed to the development.

“Do you know whether this power line project is necessary?” according to the letter. “We continue to challenge you to seek quantifiable justification before approving the project.”

Tom Content, executive directors of the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin, said his group, which is charged with representing ratepayers, initially avoided taking a position on the Cardinal-Hickory project. Only after an independent consultant found that some of the figures that ATC had relied on to justify the project in 2011 were now obsolete did the Citizens Utility Board decide to formally come against the proposed line.

One of the biggest changes in 2011 has been in the price of solar generation, which has become far cheaper than it once was. Meanwhile, the price and performance of battery storage has improved too. Content and others argue such change now make the construction of a large transmission line like the proposed Cardinal-Hickory Creek project difficult to justify.

“The economic benefits that the utilities were talking about were overstated,” Content said. “They hadn’t met the burden to pay for the line.”

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