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.

A citizens' task force created by the state Environmental Quality Board in January 1997 was even less enthusiastic. Asked to pick one of the three possible routes for the line, the group instead recommended that the EQB reject the entire project. The task force noted that Wisconsin authorities seemed to be following an "extension-cord strategy," relying on electricity imports rather than building their own power plants. The "major effect" of the St. Croix line, the document said, "would be to facilitate the ability of Wisconsin electric consumers to export a portion of the cost of their energy consumption."

The task force also charged that the NSP proposal violated Minnesota law: Under a 1978 state Supreme Court decision, its report pointed out, utility lines must be strung along existing power corridors "unless there are extremely strong reasons not to do so." NSP's Heimstead responds that in the utility's preferred version of the project, the high-voltage line would simply replace the smaller power line already in place at St. Croix Falls.

Over the past four weeks, members of the task force and other citizens have taken their arguments to the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board, whose hearings on the NSP proposal are expected to end this week. A decision is not expected until March. But the controversy, critics say, could drag on much longer: St. Croix Falls Mayor Terry Lundgren, for one, says his city and its Minnesota neighbor, Taylors Falls, have retained legal counsel to fight NSP's proposal.

It Runs Through a River: NSP's power line could cross the St. Croix near the historic hydroelectric plant at St. Croix Falls
It Runs Through a River: NSP's power line could cross the St. Croix near the historic hydroelectric plant at St. Croix Falls

Lundgren says his constituents are worried not only about the currently proposed line--which would bisect St. Croix Falls's Main Street--but about what else NSP may have in store: "The 230-kilovolt line is just the beginning," he says. "Once [it] is approved, no other application or public input is needed for upgrading to 345 kilovolt or 500 kilovolt." Other critics note that in its application to the EQB, NSP is claiming the right to take land up to 1.25 miles on either side of the proposed corridor--enough land to string not one, but three high-voltage lines.

Jim Alders, NSP's manager of regional projects, acknowledges that NSP could add more lines to the St. Croix corridor, but says that the utility doesn't foresee that happening. "If additional transfer capacity is found to be necessary in the future, we believe those needs can be accommodated without additional lines."

Officials in the Badger State, however, seem to think otherwise. The regional study delivered to the Wisconsin Legislature in September assumes that the Chisago line will be in operation by 2002; a map of options to fill the state's need for additional power shows two more lines running from the Chisago substation to central Wisconsin. And if that happens, Lundgren says, his town might as well turn off the decorative lighting it just installed along Main Street. "We've been going through a downtown revitalization," he says, "to create that quaint small-community feel here. To have that kind of electric facade running through town would devastate this community."

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