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."

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.

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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