Western Wisconsin power lines under budget; savings close to $60 million

February 4, 2019 GMT

New reports show two recent high-voltage power line projects in western Wisconsin will cost consumers almost $60 million less than originally expected.

American Transmission Company, the primary utility behind a controversial line between Dubuque and Madison, have notified Wisconsin regulators that it will likely trim $46.4 million from the budget of its last big project, known as Badger Coulee.

Approved in 2015, the 180-mile line between Holmen and Middleton was originally projected to cost $581 million, but ATC said it now expects the line will cost $535 million.

ATC spokeswoman Kaya Freiman said favorable pricing for steel and aluminum purchased in 2015 helped keep down construction costs, which represent most of the savings.

As of December, when the line went into service, ATC had spent about $514 million, but the company expects the final price tag will grow with ongoing restoration, environmental monitoring and easement negotiations.

Court records show dozens of pending condemnation review cases in counties along the Badger Coulee route.

The Public Service Commission also received a notice last week from Xcel Energy that the final costs of a 90-mile line along the Mississippi River between Alma and Holmen were almost $12 million lower than the approved $211 million cost.

Xcel attributed the savings to lower material costs, less grading work than expected and inadvertent double-counting of land costs in its estimate for a new substation.

The line, part of a multistate project known as CapX2020, went into service in 2015. Xcel said the final tally includes the costs to fix interference the line caused on nearby railroad tracks owned by BNSF.

The costs of transmission projects are passed on to electric ratepayers.

In both cases, the utilities said the projects were needed for reliability and would ultimately save ratepayers money, though opponents questioned their estimates.

The revised costs shouldn’t come as a surprise, said Frank Jablonski, an attorney who represented the La Crosse County town of Holland in a challenge to the Badger Coulee project. The town lost its case in the court of appeals.

“The commissioners there will pretty much approve whatever they ask,” Jablonski said. “It all seems massively gamed to me given that we’ve got falling energy use in the state. The question remains: why more wires for less load?”

ATC opponents receive funding

ATC is now seeking permission to build another $500 million line known as Cardinal-Hickory Creek that has generated widespread opposition along the proposed route through southern Wisconsin.

Last week, the PSC — which will determine if that line, known as Cardinal-Hickory Creek, is needed and in the public interest — allocated more than $115,000 in public funding for groups taking part in the case.

The PSC awarded $39,730 to the Citizens Utility Board, which plans to hire a consultant to review some of the economic modeling and impact to utility rates; and $35,745 to Clean Wisconsin for staff analysis.

Commissioners balked at an $85,300 request from the Driftless Area Land Conservancy, which has proposed to hire an “a-plus team” of experts to show there are more cost-effective alternatives. The PSC voted instead to award them the same amount as CUB.

The commission put off a decision on the village of Montfort’s request for $12,650 to analyze the potential impact on property values, asking the village to provide more details about how it plans to use the money.

The PSC had just over $650,000 in utility-funded intervener funds to be allocated before June 30.

No new dates for enviro review meets

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has not yet rescheduled a series of public meetings on its draft environmental review of the project.

Six meetings had been scheduled for Jan. 22-29 in communities along the route but were canceled because of the federal government shutdown.

The USDA’s Rural Utilities Service is overseeing the federal environmental review of the line. RUS employees returned to work last week but have yet to set new dates.