Iowa Utilities Board Aprroves ATC-CHC Line

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Matt Geiger

DES MOINES IA–Following six years of public involvement and regulatory review, during which citizen groups and government agencies in the Driftless Area voiced nearly unanimous opposition to the proposal, ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power Cooperative have received approval for the Cardinal-Hickory Creek (CHC) Transmission Line Project from the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB). 

In a written decision, the three IUB members unanimously approved the franchise for the 14-mile Iowa transmission line segment, which will be constructed from the Hickory Creek substation near New Vienna in Dubuque County,  northward to Clayton County in Iowa, and then cross the Mississippi River near Cassville, and continue through the Driftless Area on its way to Middleton.

The line was first announced in 2014. After garnering approval from the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) in the fall of 2019, it also was approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service and the Iowa Utilities Board. Planners say they expect approval of a permit by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in the fall of 2020. 

Construction is expected to begin in 2021 to meet an in-service date of 2023. 

The entire project will include approximately 100-miles of 345-kilovolt transmission line designed to electrically connect the Dubuque County, Iowa region to the Dane County, Wisconsin region. In Wisconsin, ITC Midwest will be responsible for the segment of line from the Mississippi River to a new substation near Montfort, to be built by American Transmission Co. (ATC), the third utility involved in the project. 

ATC will also be responsible for the remainder of the line to Dane County. Last September, the Wisconsin PSC issued a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity and selected the route for the Wisconsin portion of the project. 

Additional regulatory approvals have been obtained from federal agencies, including the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Army Corps of Engineers, for permission for the line to cross the Mississippi River.

Final permitting from these federal agencies has been received or is in process, and formal opposition from Dane County officials and state and federal lawmakers–not to mention innumerable citizens with signs posted in yards and along Highway 18-151–did not prevent the project from moving forward. 

A brief filed by Dane County with the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin last year claimed there is no need for the power transmission line, citing “a litany of concerns” and arguing it is “readily apparent” the line shouldn’t be built at this time.

The 345-kilovolt line would move power, some of which is created by wind energy and some of which is created using fossil fuels. Its backers say the line will provide $23.5 million to $350 million in net economic benefits and enable wind farms to connect to the regional electric grid. Running somewhere between 102-120 miles long, the line will cost an estimated $500 million, about $70 million of which will be paid by Wisconsin consumers.

ATC and ITC both argued the new line would avoid the need to spend $87.2 million to $98.8 million on transmission line and asset renewal projects that would otherwise be needed if the project were not constructed. They also say it will increase the transfer capability of the electric system between Iowa and Wisconsin by approximately 1,300 megawatts, which will ease grid congestion, increase competition to help provide lower-cost power to Wisconsin and transfer additional low-cost wind energy into the state.

In fact, they say the CHC line will provide an outlet for approximately 25 gigawatts of wind resources in Iowa and areas west of Wisconsin and enable more than a dozen new wind facilities to fully interconnect to the electric system in areas west of Wisconsin.

But in the Dane County’s brief last year, deputy corporation counsel Carlos Pabellón alleged that the applicants “failed to meet their burden to justify the issuance of a certificate of public convenience and necessity for the construction and operation of the Project.” Pabellón, along with many others, argued the PSC should have denied the application.

“After receiving hours of testimony, many exhibits and hundreds of public comments about the Cardinal Hickory Transmission Line, the Commission finally has all of the pertinent information to decide whether or not to grant a CPCN to the Applicants,” stated the county’s brief. “When the Commission begins its review and analysis, one central theme should become readily apparent: the need for the Project is not present in this case. The Commission’s own staff have highlighted serious issues with how Applicants have attempted to demonstrate the need for the new 345kV transmission line.

“Despite years of study and analysis, [the] Applicants’ attempt to demonstrate the need for the Cardinal Hickory Transmission line did not withstand Commission’s staff review,” Pabellón continued. “Applicants went to great lengths to justify the Project by modifying how the economic need of high-voltage transmission lines are typically calculated, overstating the reliability benefits associated with the Project and overstating the impact of cost-sharing. By doing so, Applicants have undermined the accuracy of their own analyses.”

In 2017, Dane County requested that the Commission undertake additional measures “to ensure that the Project’s impact was sufficiently accounted for in the CPCN application process.” Specifically, the county asked the commission to require applicants to undertake additional cost-benefit analyses and conduct a comprehensive analysis and presentation of the economic, environmental and public health impacts of non-transmission alternatives. The county’s specific requests were not granted, but the Public Service Commission did conduct a thorough analysis on the line’s modeling and projections.

According to Pabellón, Public Service Commission staff showed “that there exist significant concerns with how [the] Applicants have tried to prove that there is an economic justification for the Project.”

The largest number of individuals, organizations and governmental units ever were accepted as parties in the state’s consideration of the CHC proposal in Wisconsin. Public Service Commission administrative law judge Michael Newmark approved requests from approximately 60 individuals and entities to be intervenors in the proposal. Used to typically working with a dozen or so intervenors in a contested case, Newmark had hoped to consolidate intervenor requests along common lines of interest to better manage the process. However, he soon acknowledged that would be impossible with two different proposed routes spread across 100-plus miles and five counties.

The line is considered to be part of a system that could serve several states.

Critics of the line say the total cost to ratepayers will be even more than the estimated price tag of the CHC. They claim that it will cost more than $270 billion due to the cost of constructing new power stations to create energy for the line.

When the IUB granted one of the project’s final approvals last week, there was little in the way of remaining opposition. Many opponents said following Wisconsin’s approval last year that Iowa was their last hope. 

“The Driftless Area Land Conservancy is very disappointed in … [the] decision by the PSC Commissioners to approve this unneeded 120-mile transmission line with 17-story towers that would create irreparable and permanent damage to the scenic Driftless Area,” said David Clutter, executive director of the Driftless Area Land Conservancy, which has fought the line with all its might, last year. “The Commission’s own staff testified that this transmission line is not the most economical option in most modeling scenarios. It’s not needed for energy demand nor reliability to keep the lights on. We expect that this decision will be challenged before federal and other state agencies, and in the courts if necessary.”

Both Dane County and Iowa County formally opposed the line.

“The direction the Commissioners’ seem to be taking is contrary to Wisconsin state law,” stated a Driftless Defenders press release last year. “Their decision is not supported by expert witness testimony, the PSC’s own staff testimony or thousands of members of the public.”

The Clean Grid Alliance, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in St. Paul, Minn., that says it works “to advance renewable energy in the Midwest,” had a very different reaction. Its members are comprised of wind and solar developers, environmental organizations, public interest groups, clean energy advocates, farm groups and businesses providing goods and services to the wind and solar industries.

“On behalf of our NGO members who are working on carbon reduction across the Midwest and industry members who are developing utility-scale wind and solar energy projects, we applaud the Wisconsin Public Service Commission for supporting the Cardinal-Hickory Creek Transmission Line,” said Clean Grid Alliance executive director Beth Soholt. “The demand for more renewable energy is palpable and the Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line will provide the ability to access and deliver renewables. We are seeing an ever-increasing stream of state governments, utilities, and corporations announcing plans for more renewable energy because of its low cost and environmental benefits. Our members are ready to fulfill their needs. We are grateful to the Commission for recognizing that more transmission is necessary in order to deliver the clean energy future everyone wants. Cardinal-Hickory Creek will also strengthen the grid and provide congestion relief for an efficient energy market in Wisconsin and the surrounding states.”

George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, called the decision “extremely” disappointing.

“The Driftless Area is a truly unique landscape and home to a large number of valuable and heavily used Federal, State and local recreational areas,” said Meyer. “There has been a substantial amount of public and private investment in the natural resources and the recreational facilities of the Driftless Area including hundreds of small businesses that derive their income based on the resulting tourism economy.

“The construction and maintenance of the proposed line and very high towers will have significant and undue adverse impacts on environmental values, including land and water resources,” Meyer continued. “The Wisconsin Wildlife Federation will continue to challenge this destructive transmission line before federal and other state agencies, and in the courts if necessary.”

Last week’s approval in Iowa is one of the last hurdles the line must clear in order to begin construction.

“We are pleased that the Iowa Utilities Board recognized the need for and benefits of this project. This project will help expand system capacity and respond to consumer demands for more cost-effective, renewable energy sources for electricity users in the region,” said ITC Midwest president Dusky Terry. “Since we introduced this project in 2014, there has been a tremendous amount of public involvement. We sincerely appreciate the public’s constructive input prior to filing the project application, and throughout the entire Iowa Utilities Board franchise process.” 

“Dairyland’s cooperative members–and energy users across the region–depend on a reliable, safe transmission system,” said Dairyland chief operating officer Ben Porath. “The Cardinal-Hickory Creek line will help satisfy that essential need in a changing energy environment, while supporting renewable resources and delivering substantial benefits to consumers.” 

As a portion of one of 17 Multi-Value Projects approved by the region’s Midcontinent Independent System Operator in 2011, the cost and benefits of the CHC project are distributed throughout the multi-state northern MISO region.

ITC Midwest is coordinating the project’s construction in Iowa and has been working with local landowners since the initial IUB public information meetings on the project held March 2018 in Peosta and Guttenberg. Now that IUB approval for the project has been granted, ITC Midwest will begin contacting Iowa property owners along the route in the coming months to discuss construction activities.

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