Cheesehead Power?

NSP says it needs to run high-voltage wires over the scenic St. Croix to keep the lights on in western Wisconsin. But critics charge the utility's plans go much further.

The sun is beginning to set in the St. Croix River Valley, inching lower to meet the basalt cliffs and tree-covered slopes that hug the town of Taylors Falls. On the Wisconsin side, a full, blue December moon rises lazily behind the Victorian facades of St. Croix Falls. The historic Northern States Power hydroelectric plant hums quietly on the riverfront; electric cables on aging wooden poles cross the river along the dam and creep up the hillsides to power the hobby farms and exurban subdivisions that dot the landscape on both sides of the river.

If Northern States Power and Wisconsin's Dairyland Power Cooperative get their way, a new element will soon join the vista: A brand-new power line, its 6-inch-thick cables clinging to steel towers up to 140 feet tall in places, could cross the St. Croix in this spot on its way from the Chisago substation some 14 miles away to another substation near Amery, Wis. It would carry up to 230 kilovolts of electricity, more than three times the capacity of the present line--enough to keep the holiday lights twinkling in hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin homes.

To hear NSP tell it, the line is an effort to provide backup power to eastern Minnesotans and western Wisconsinites currently at risk of brownouts. "We see a growing demand in that area for power, and we see that our system is not adequate," says Mary Heimstead, a spokeswoman for the power company. "The lines can become constrained and overloaded, and when that happens, redundancy is important."

But critics--including a group called Concerned River Valley Citizens, whose membership has swelled to several hundred in the last few months--claim NSP's argument is disingenuous. "Their stated reason for this line is an energy deficit in eastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin," says George Crocker, a longtime NSP critic and head of the environmental group North American Water Office. "But the real reason they want it is to be able to transport bulk power to Milwaukee and Chicago. They're asking for what they don't want, because if they asked for what they do want, they wouldn't get it."

NSP's real goal, charges Crocker, is to position itself for a future in which electric power is bought and sold much like long-distance phone service. Under current regulations, governments assign each power company a specific, monopoly territory in which it must provide power at certain prices; NSP's territory stretches from Michigan to South Dakota. But in recent years, a number of states--including California, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts--have passed laws opening the electricity market to competition, and Congress is considering measures that would deregulate utilities nationwide. Many observers believe Minnesota will not join the deregulation bandwagon for a few years yet; still, the matter is the subject of growing interest at the state Legislature. "There are powerful moneyed interests in this state that want to see it happen, not the least of which is NSP," says Pam Marshall, director of the Energy CENTS Coalition, an energy consumers' advocacy group. "I think you will continue to see a push for deregulation."

The St. Croix project would fit into a deregulation scenario, Marshall and others contend, because Minnesota currently has lower electricity prices than points east, including the energy-hungry industrial markets of Milwaukee and Chicago. A new high-voltage line--its $46-million price tag borne in large part by Minnesota and Wisconsin ratepayers--would be well-positioned, they allege, to deliver extra electricity to those markets.

But that allegation is unfounded, Heimstead says. "The primary reason for filing the application for the project is to serve the local needs." Heimstead concedes that the line will enable NSP to transfer large quantities of power from west to east, but she says that's to the benefit of customers: "Every day utilities are moving power back and forth. Dairyland might have some power to sell to us one day, and we may have some to sell to them another." As for the critics' complaint about the line's cost, Heimstead says, the burden will be spread among 1.4 million residential and industrial users over dozens of years: "No one customer will notice a significant jump in their bill."

On one point, almost all those involved in the debate seem to agree: Wisconsin has an energy problem. A study commissioned by its Legislature last year found that to ensure reliable service, the state needed to approximately double its capacity for electricity imports. Udaivir Sirohi, the case coordinator for the Chisago transmission project at the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, says the commission has identified the St. Croix line as critical in that process. (The commission has drawn up its own Environmental Impact Statement on the matter and plans to begin hearings January 19.)

Reports to Minnesota agencies charged with reviewing NSP's proposal have been more ambivalent. In a study commissioned by the state Department of Public Service and completed in September, the engineering consulting firm Booth and Associates Inc. found that the Chisago line was needed to resolve "immediate local deficiencies." But, the document added, it would do nothing to solve the larger problem: For that, it said, NSP needed to create a "long-range approach... none of which has been proposed in this filing."

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