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.”
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