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March 2014 Issue

March 2014
Feature 1

LINE
LITITGATION

Feature 2

YOU CAN'T
GO BACK

Editorial

EDITORIAL
"Friendly Competition"

Wisconsin Favorites
Wisconsin Favorites
"Something Special
Springs Forth at Wisconsin Concrete Park"

 

 

 

 

Line Litigation

Transmission Opponents Battle On

Combined with widespread popular support for wind energy as an environmental problem-solver, state and federal policy choices dating back a decade are driving a build-out of the high-voltage transmission grid, with significant utility construction in Wisconsin.

  If the activity here is less widespread than next door in Minnesota, where the state is to be crossed by three new transmission lines intended primarily to move wind-generated electricity from the Great Plains to Chicago and population centers farther east, it’s sufficient to spark the kind of controversy that arises whenever new utility infrastructure is proposed and people begin to worry about its impending arrival in their back yards.   

  In the spring of 2012, Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission (PSC) approved the comparatively small, easternmost leg of the massive Minnesota undertaking, a new 345-kilovolt line called “Alma-La Crosse,” spanning the Mississippi River at Alma and ending about 50 miles to the south, at a new substation just north of La Crosse. In January, two opposition groups petitioned the PSC to reopen its regulatory review, saying new information not available at the time of the approval refutes the need for the line.

Paradox: Demand Up, Sales Down

The petitioning groups, Citizens Energy Task Force (CETF) and Save Our Unique Lands (SOUL), say electricity usage is down, obviating the need for Alma-La Crosse, especially if a decline in power sales is considered alongside the potential for greater energy conservation and efficiency measures.

Project supporters counter that peak demand—the greatest electrical load energy providers must serve at any given moment—is the issue that matters, not overall power usage compared on a year-to-year basis.

Alma-La Crosse would traverse parts of Buffalo, Trempealeau, and La Crosse Counties, forming the Wisconsin component of a larger project routing a new line from Hampton, Minnesota, near the Twin Cities, through Rochester to Alma and La Crosse. That project is part of the aforementioned, more extensive upgrades reaching to the Dakotas and called CapX2020.

CETF and SOUL contend the PSC should reopen the case in light of “continued depression in electrical demand” and potentially enhanced application of energy efficiency practices.

They maintain that the Hampton-La Crosse utilities’ power demand is “consistently lower than forecast” while ability to reduce demand “is consistently increasing.” Their petition says a December 2010 CapX2020 application used outdated forecasts—later revised downward—while both Xcel Energy and Dairyland Power have reported declining electricity sales since the application was accepted for PSC review in 2011.

Xcel’s Northern States Power affiliate, Dairyland, and WPPI Energy are the co-applicants planning to build the Alma-La Crosse project.

Wrong Question, Applicants Say

Soon after the opponents filed their petition, the La Crosse Tribune quoted an Xcel Energy spokesman saying the project’s purpose is to preserve ability to meet peak demand, and even with overall power sales remaining below anticipated levels, the utility has experienced new peaks in each of the past five years. Dairyland reported all-time peak demand on July 6, 2012.

A response filed with the PSC by the applicants called the SOUL and CETF argument concerning electricity sales “misguided,” noting that “The local reliability need in the La Crosse/Winona area is driven by peak demand not energy sales.”

The document quotes the PSC’s May 2012 order approving the line saying that “even at the lower projected annual growth rates, it is undisputed that the La Crosse local area needs require additional electric infrastructure to provide adequate system reliability.”

Peak demand at La Crosse/Winona-area substations rose 3.44 percent in 2012 over 2011 and 1.95 percent in 2013 over 2012, the response said.

Through established load-management programs—for instance, planned interruption of power to water heaters or air conditioners—cooperatives and their members help reduce demand on the Dairyland system by the rough equivalent of a small power plant, making the La Crosse-based generation and transmission co-op a standout in “peak-shaving” as a percentage of total load.

Nevertheless, in their response to the PSC, the applicants addressed energy efficiency issues by citing the Commission’s own independent finding that to replace Alma-La Crosse with energy efficiency and conservation would require immediate reduction of peak load by approximately eight percent, along with the approximate 0.5 percent annual reduction already built into demand forecasts, and that “it is unlikely that this level of load reduction can be achieved through energy efficiency and conservation.”

Plan Ahead

As you read this, it’s possible the latest challenge by CETF and SOUL might be resolved. That wouldn’t rule out others. By early February, the groups had filed comments and signatures from more than 500 individuals asking the PSC to reopen the case.

Often as not, once state and federal oversight agencies finish their regulatory review and permitting, there may come a petition for a court to revisit the same sets of issues, all of which helps explain two things: The necessity that energy providers begin planning any significant construction project years—perhaps a decade—ahead of actual need, and the fact that when people oppose something being built, it can be a long time before they run out of options. —Dave Hoopman

 

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You Can’t Go Back

Better Infrastructure Won’t Make Restructuring a Winner

 

Last December, Pewaukee-based American Transmission Company energized a new high-voltage connection to Illinois. The new 345-kilovolt line runs only five miles but its significance is greater than that abbreviated length might suggest. It represents a fifth high-voltage link with our southern neighbor and boosts Wisconsin’s total number of interstate transmission connections to eight.

Eight is twice the number of such connections Wisconsin had in the 1990s, a fact that loomed large in the path state policymakers took—no doubt to their surprise in some cases—as enthusiasm for electric utility restructuring peaked nationwide.

Today’s far more robust network allowing access to a greatly expanded range of wholesale power sources warrants much higher confidence in system reliability than would have been justified 15 years ago.  It could also spark new interest in a largely discredited policy choice that Wisconsin flirted with in the mid-1990s and walked away from just in time.

Temporarily Inevitable

Look back to 1994 and you’ll find the word of the day was “inevitable.” All but a few of Wisconsin’s top utility executives, brightest policy minds and most adept political practitioners were assuring one another that this state would “inevitably” join the movement to restructure its electric utilities as California, New York and other states were preparing to do, and the only question was how advantageous it would be to get into the game early.

Figuratively tapping at the window as these conversations took place were groups prominently including the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association, pointing out that sky-high electric rates might drive other states to desperate measures, but Wisconsin rates were at or below the national average. Moreover, skeptics said, any consumer benefit from a forced breakup of utilities—mandating generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity by separate companies—looked highly speculative and more like a recipe for higher prices, not lower ones.  

Nevertheless, a blue-ribbon task force convened to map Wisconsin’s transition to what many preferred to call “deregulation” of retail electricity. Later experience would show the legislative and regulatory contortions necessary to make the idea look like a winner for consumers—and therefore politically safe—created something better labeled hyper-regulation than deregulation. Fortunately that experience would be someone else’s.

Saved by the Blackouts

The summer of 1997 was a hot one and both of Wisconsin’s nuclear power plants were down for prolonged repairs. Running, they provided about one-fifth of the state’s generation. Idle, they caused a shortfall to be made up through imports accessible through only four transmission lines, one from Minnesota and always congested, and three from Illinois.

A midsummer heat wave forced the utility serving southeast Wisconsin to shut off major customers to avert blackouts. Industries repeatedly halted operations as power was interrupted. Business leaders, high on restructuring, began insisting on reliability first. By 1999, Wisconsin government was fully engaged in initiatives not to restructure electric utilities, but to strengthen their infrastructure under the existing regulatory regime.

Facilities to move power into and out of Wisconsin are now greatly enhanced and with more on the way, the biggest obstacles to a free-wheeling retail market might appear to be conquered. Some have been, but better infrastructure doesn’t alter the fact that while electric rates have risen in every state since the ‘90s, they’ve risen more in the states that restructured than in the ones that didn’t. 

More transmission lines have brought more secure power supplies. That’s not the same as making a regulatory model that bankrupted utilities and increased consumer prices a good idea.—Dave Hoopman

 

 

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EDITORIAL

Eau Claire Energy Cooperative Communications and Public Relations Manager Mary Kay Brevig hugs CEO Lynn Thompson as she learns she is the 2014 N.F. Leifer Memorial Journalism Award winner.

Every edition of Wisconsin Energy Cooperative News contains each electric co-op’s own, personalized pages. Found on pages four and five and on 28 and 29, these pages contain information developed by personnel at each co-op.

So, in the spirit of friendly competition and as a way to encourage our local editors, each year since 1966, we have given awards to individual co-ops for excellence in four categories of presenting local-page news. A professional in the field of communications, unaffiliated with the Wisconsin co-ops, evaluates a sampling of each co-op’s local pages and assigns point values in various journalistic elements, including visual appeal, interest/variety, and quality of writing.

In the spring of each year, we present the award for overall excellence--the award known as the N. F. Leifer Memorial Journalism Award, named for “Lefty” Leifer, former manager of Vernon Electric. Lefty was instrumental in the founding of the REA News back in the spring of 1940, making Wisconsin’s statewide electric co-op publication the first of its type in the nation.

This year, Eau Claire Energy Cooperative was chosen as the best of the best, and local pages editor Mary Kay Brevig received the award at the annual Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association’s Education and Lobby Days in Madison.

Co-ops are recognized individually for the best magazine work in four categories, human interest, reporting of co-op operations, energy information, and photography. The Leifer Award goes to the co-op that did the best job during the preceding year of putting the whole package together, and nobody has held a monopoly: The recognition has been widely distributed—and earned—across Wisconsin. The take-home message is that co-op employees are working hard—in addition to their other day-to-day duties—to perform the challenging task of delivering accurate and useful information to member-owners about their cooperative and its role in the community. Challenging work, and as the annual Leifer Award suggests, rewarding work as well.

N.F. “Lefty” Leifer Memorial Journalism Award Winners

1966 Crawford
(now Scenic Rivers)
1967 Crawford
1968 Crawford
1969 Richland
1970 Crawford
1971 Columbus
(now Adams-Columbia)
1972 Barron
1973 Crawford
1974 Rock County
1975 Eau Claire
1976 Barron
1977 St. Croix
1978 Crawford
1979 Buffalo
(now Riverland)
1980 Vernon
1981 Buffalo
1982 Grant
(now Scenic Rivers)
1983 Head of the Lakes
(now East Central)
1984 Oakdale
1985 Barron
1986 Jackson
1987 Barron
1988 Barron
1989 Grant
1990 Vernon
1991 Adams-Columbia
1992 Oakdale
1993 Oakdale
1994 Grant-Lafayette
(now Scenic Rivers)
1995 St. Croix
1996 Oakdale
1997 Grant-Lafayette
1998 Eau Claire
1999 Vernon
2000 Oconto
2001 Adams-Columbia
2002 Adams-Columbia
2003 Adams-Columbia
2004 Vernon
2005 Dunn
2006 Adams-Columbia
2007 Richland
2008 Richland
2009 Adams-Columbia
2010 Adams-Columbia
2011 Richland
2012 Rock
2013 Clark
2014 Eau Claire

 

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If the long, cold winter has left you yearning for a little light-hearted fun, head to the Concrete Park in Phillips and immerse yourself in the whimsical world of Fred Smith, a former logger and self-taught artist who created the 237 concrete and glass statues that populate the park’s 16 acres.

Open year-round, the park is located in Smith’s former backyard, where he built the entire sculptural display in a brief and prolific stretch starting when he was 62 years old. Visitors are free to wander through the park and study the unique sculptures up close.

That’s just as Smith intended. Sharon Friedell, director of the nonprofit group The Friends of Fred Smith, explained that Smith, who died in 1976, wasn’t motivated by financial gain or recognition. He simply wanted people to see the statues he created, so he built them right by the road, in full view.

Although many of the statues appear to be mostly playful expressions, such as the wedding party riding a carriage, a closer inspection reveals that these statues are much more than just fanciful flights of Smith’s imagination.

“He used statues to express a lot of things,” said Friedell. “Most depict some sort of visual for what was happening in his lifetime. A lot of them express changes in time.”

For example, one statue depicts a woman milking a cow with one hand and holding a can of evaporated milk, newly available in Smith’s lifetime, in the other. Others reflect the logging world Smith was once part of. Many honor the way Native Americans of the area lived in harmony with nature, and still others are patriotic. There are even replicas of national monuments.

After Smith’s death, the property was turned into a park operated cooperatively by Price County and The Friends of Fred Smith, established in the mid 1990s. Over the years, this group has added amenities such as rest-rooms, a parking lot, and a classroom building. The organization has also facilitated a year-round schedule of free workshops and events. Classes are regularly held at the park in a variety of topics, from painting to puppeteering.

The spring schedule includes the newly expanded Heritage Days: Get Hooked on History, set for May 16–17. Now in its third year, Heritage Days is an event for area fourth-graders, who come to the park and learn about the past at interactive, living-history stations facilitated by local history groups.

This year, the event is being extended for a second day. On May 17, Heritage Days will be open to the public and expanded in focus to celebrate music as well as history. Plans call for stage performances of traditional and ethnic music and dancing, and a central “music camp” area with music historians and musical instrument makers engaging the public.

Plan a visit to the Wisconsin Concrete Park; it’s sure to put a spring in your step.—Mary Erickson

Wisconsin Concrete Park is located at N8236 S. Hwy. 13, Phillips. It’s open year-round during daylight hours. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated. Learn more at www.friendsoffredsmith.org or by calling (800) 269-4505.

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©2014 Wisconsin Energy Cooperative News